Author Archive: Conrad Schiff

Kirby’s Fourth World – The Dark Decade

Kirby started his Fourth World series with a lot of passion and hype and energy and ideas.  His visual style, as always, made his art seem to pop off the page, grabbing the reader’s attention.  And his mysterious language – including terms like Mother Box, New Genesis, Darkseid, the Source, Anti-Life and so on – provided a fully textured landscape for in which to set his tales.  Unfortunately, his actual story-telling left much to be desired and his grand design reached a strange end; a combination of an abrupt termination in the case of the New Gods and the Forever People and a slower decline in Mister Miracle.  Eventually, Kirby returned to Marvel Comics, albeit briefly, leaving his Fourth World behind.

Recognizing that there were valuable mythological elements in what Kirby had wrought, DC would try repeatedly over the intervening 40 years to recapture the original excitement and buzz.  Titles would be relaunched and, for a time, draw a readership, but after a while interest would wane and the series would disappear, only for the pattern to repeat about 5 or 10 years later, usually as a result of some trigger event.

The first attempts at a revival occurred during the time span from 1977– 1987, a period which I will call the Dark Decade, and they were mostly unmemorable; the two exceptions being the fine presentation of The Great Darkness Saga in the Legion of Super-heroes and the X-Men/Teen Titans one shot crossover.

The publication timeline for the Dark Decade is interesting in and of itself and provides the first opportunity to see how the Kirby concepts get interpreted by new writers.  The trigger that started the whole thing off was a new Fourth World story published in the last issue of 1st Issue Special (#13) and terminated with the Hunger Dogs graphic novel (published in 1985), in which Kirby returns for a final story intended to close out the story of New Genesis and Apokolips.

The Dark Decade naturally divides into two pieces that encapsulate the death-rebirth cycle pattern of the Fourth World.  The first rebirth, spanning 1976-1978, mainly consisted of a restart of the New Gods and Mister Miracle with no break in numbering (although the cover of the New Gods routinely sported the title Return of the New Gods).  These two titles lasted until the DC Implosion after which a hasty closure was put in place in Adventure Comics #459-460.

This first rebirth is particularly fascinating since it shows how the writers (particularly Gerry Conway) see that the tone and substance of Kirby’s original narrative needs to be matured.  The action picks up 1st Issue Special #13, with Orion, now sporting a new costume, invading Apokolips

hell-bent on killing Darkseid and putting an end to the current war between Apokolips and New Genesis. His fury is quickly blunted when he learns that he must drop his plan of patricide and bide his time because revenge on Darkseid would have disastrous consequences.  This message is delivered by the mysterious Source, which communicates via a disembodied hand writing cryptic messages on the wall as if it were straight from the book of Daniel in the bible.

Further investigation by the New Gods reveals that direct action against Darkseid would spell doom for the Earth.

These devices are a marked departure from the Kirby approach in several ways.  First, Kirby had always portrayed Darkseid more as a Hitleresque-dictator bent on control but with far less physical power and potency than the version here.  Second, Orion was portrayed more as a noble savage rather than a cold, calculating killer.  Here, it seems, that Conway has recognized the need to make the content more grim and adult.

After nearly a year, the story continues in the restart of the New Gods at issue #12 with an obligatory nod to Kirby’s original concept

but with the narrative focused very tightly on Darkseid’s desire for the Anti-Life formula.  Once held by the Infinity Man, an being called into existence by the Forever People (a set of hippy New Gods who leave New Genesis to avoid the war with Apokolips) whenever they united via their Mother Box, the Anti-Life formula (see last post) is now divided into six parts and is carried by 6 human beings

Despite the efforts of the New Gods, by the end of the series Darkseid has obtained the Anti-Life formula.  This knowledge allows him to cripple New Genesis, to create a mind-controlling obscenity called the Antagonist, which he unleashes on the Earth.

It also emboldens him to dare to penetrate the very essence of the Source,

a feat many have tried but none have accomplished.  Punishment for trying and failing is a kind of living death, the victim being bloated to the size of planets and chained immovably to rock – the so-called Promethean Giants

After the DC implosion end the New Gods at issue #19, Conway constructs the final pieces in Adventure Comics #459-460.  Here he has a one-on-one confrontation between Orion and Darkseid, as the latter is just about to try to enter the Source.  Declaring that he no longer holds Earth’s fate hostage to his own heartbeat, Darkseid instead tries to tempt Orion to join him

When Orion refuses, Darkseid savagely attacks and leaves him for dead.  However, Darkseid is weakened by his battle with his son and he fails to penetrate the Source and his seemingly destroyed – although he will be brought back later in Justice League of America #183.

Perhaps more interesting are the philosophical ideas explored by Steve Engelhart and, subsequently, Steve Gerber, in Mister Miracle.  Again recognizing that the original Kirby arc lacked in theme and meaning, some of the most interesting dialog happens between Scott Free/Mister Miracle and Darkseid, including Darkseid’s revelation that he alone sees the cosmic jest of their collective situation

and his suggestion that the universe is dualist in its nature

The Fourth World remained quiet for a number of years later but the critical and commercial success of both the Great Darkness Saga and the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover, retriggered a new try.

In 1984, DC reprinted the New Gods in a higher quality reprint series with two issues per publication.  Since there were 11 issues in the original run, this left space of a finale in the sixth installment.  DC brought back Kirby, who supplied the Even Gods Must Die story and who redrew that last panel of New Gods #11 to look as if nothing had ever interrupted the flow.

The new story places Orion back on Apokolips (just like 1st Issue Special) but with a far different outcome. By the end of this installment, Darkseid – who in Kirby’s version is to cowardly to do his own dirty work – has Orion gunned down

presumably to his death, although the body is never found.  Whether the Even Gods Must Die story was meant as a tease or it was found to be unsatisfactory by the readers, Kirby followed it up with the Hunger Dogs graphic novel.  The primary theme here is that Orion, saved from death his Mother Box

now becomes a rallying figure for the hunger dogs (i.e the oppressed of Apokolips).

While the Orion-back rebellion continues to foment, Darkseid abandons the Anti-Life formula once one of his scientists invents Micromark,

a small AI that ushers in an era of machines on Apokolips.

Darkseid, who Kirby again portrays more as a universal tyrant rather than cosmic villain,

and his Micromark new world era don’t last long as the Hunger Dogs rise up and overthrow him.   Darkseid is forced to watch Apokolips rip itself apart as Orion escapes with his mother and bride-to-be.

The Hunger Dogs is not well-regarded and its climax is widely considered to be unsatisfying.  In closing out the New Gods in his own way Kirby seems to have rejected the various interpretations provided by Conway, Englehart, and Gerber, which is a shame, since their interpretations were more nuanced than his.  Kirby may have created a treasure trove of ideas and images but he was never able to properly tap into to them.  And this is perhaps the single biggest point and greatest tragedy of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World – that ultimately it is a lot a style over substance.

Kirby’s Fourth World

And Lo! There came a time when the King left the Marvelous and Fantastic place that he helped to shape and mold into the great firm that it had become.  Onward did he travel to the distinguished competition, taking his point-fingered, curvy women and bombastically muscular men with him.

If that ridiculous bit of melodrama sounds even mildly familiar, it’s because I was channeling my inner Stan Lee as I wrote the introduction.  And the King to which I was referring is none other than Jack Kirby.  The event was the split between Kirby and Marvel comics in 1970 and his subsequent departure for DC comics.

While these events are interesting in their own right, their particular relevance to this post is that, without this split, the world would never know of one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in comics: The Fourth World.

The Fourth World mythos consisted of four comics titles that Jack Kirby wrote, illustrated, and edited for DC comics from late 1970 to 1973.  During those 4 years, Kirby’s grand tale was told across 4 separate titles: Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (issues #133-#148 from October 1970 to April 1972), The New Gods (issues #1-11 from February 1971 to November 1972), The Forever People (issues #1-11 from February 1971 to November 1972), and Mister Miracle (issues #1-#18 from April 1971 to March 1974).  All told, at the end of his tenure, over 1500 pages of comics storytelling had come to life to tell the story of the New Gods and their struggle against Darkseid and the villainous denizens of his hell planet Apokolips.

Darkseid’s machinations in the 30th century were covered in last month’s column entitled Great Darkness, Great Tale.  This month, I thought it would be appropriate to trace the roots of that story to the mythology Jack Kirby invented in the early 70s.

The basic premise of the story is best told in Kirby’s own words:

There came a time when the old gods died!  The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with unleashed evil.  It was the last day for them!  An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust.

The final moment came with the fatal release of indescribable power – which tore the home of the old gods asunder – split it in great halves – and filled the universe with the blinding death-flash of destruction.

In the end there were two giant molten bodies, spinning slow and barren – clean of all that had gone before – adrift in the fading sounds of cosmic thunder.

Silence closed upon what had happened – a long, deep silence – wrapped in massive darkness…it was this way for an age… THEN—THERE WAS NEW LIGHT!

Jack Kirby – The New Gods #1

In Kirby’s new world (fourth one?), the two molten bodies, which started barren, eventually sprouted life, and in some cosmic Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde transformation, became New Genesis and Apokolips.

For another age, the two planets warred against each other, neither able to gain the upper hand.  Finally, Izaya, the leader of New Genesis, struck a deal to assure peace with Darkseid, the tyrant of Apokolips.  Each would send his only son as surety to be raised by the other.  Thus Darkseid’s bestial child Orion was raised on New Genesis and Scott Free, Izaya’s boy, was doomed to a childhood in the orphanages of Apokolips.

The beginning of Kirby’s narrative occurs when the denizens of both planets start appearing on Earth and new hostilities begin between the two races of cosmic beings.  The primary storyline centers on Darkseid’s pursuit of the Anti-Life formula

by violating the minds of certain humans

found to be holding the secret of Anti-Life.

Against this central backdrop are dramas of Scott Free, who has escaped Apokolips and has put his celestial abilities to work as an escape artist working under the name Mister Miracle, and of the Forever People, a cadre of ‘hippie’ New Gods who are seeking a simpler life away from the strife associated with the war.

Kirby’s storytelling is certainly a product of his pop-art vision and the youth-centered counter-culture of the times.  One such storyline has Superman and his pal Jimmy Olsen encountering a group of dropouts who’ve created what must be the greatest of all treehouses

The campiness doesn’t end there.   There are examples of exotic deathtraps

psychedelic locales

and eccentric characters

Kirby’s style and consummate skill as an illustrator are clearly on display on each and every one of those 1500 pages.  Unfortunately, although his ideas really are cosmic and engaging, his storytelling execution left much to be desired.  Plot points often lacked in logic

and his dialog in style.

The rare moments of raw emotion were few and far-between but when encountered were truly touching

As a result, the series were a mixed bag and the overall storyline suffered. Sales never lived up to the promise that no doubt was first conceived when Kirby left behind the string of hits he had at Marvel.  Nonetheless, his mythology has endured in large part due to his original ideas, like the living computers known as Mother Boxes

and the enduring and unadulterated evil of Darkseid.

The romance between Scott Free and Big Barda,

one of Darkseid’s female operatives sent to retrieve him, was also one of the more intriguing of Kirby’s concepts and, perhaps, explains why Mister Miracle ran the longest of all the Fourth World books Kirby created.

Soon after the demise of the Fourth World tale, Kirby returned to Marvel but never quite to the glory or success that he had prior to his departure.  But the New God seed he planted at DC would continue to bloom and wither and bloom again over the decades since – and all comic book fans are more enriched as a result.

 

Great Darkness, Great Tale

It was the fall of 1982.  An early childhood captivatingly watching Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman on the television had done little to shape my comic book choices.  By my early teens, I had decidedly fallen into the Marvel camp for my reading pleasures.  But here in the fall of 1982, I haunted the local newsstands looking for one title more than any other – The Legion of Super-Heroes.

I had always had a soft spot for the Legion.  One of the earliest comics I owned was Superboy #210 (which eventually is renamed Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes and then, finally, just the Legion of Super-Heroes).  The lead story, which was Legion of Super-Heroes tale, was one of my favorites.  Nonetheless, the series just didn’t stick.  Sure, I bought issues from time to time, but it just didn’t capture my attention every month.  That was until Paul Levitz (script), Keith Giffen (pencils), Larry Mahlstedt (inks), and Carl Gafford (colors) started their Great Darkness Saga.

At the risk of using an old cliché, this storyline has it all – fun, action, horror, nobility, drama, tension, and style.  The storyline ran continuously from issue #290-294 with a small prolog in issue #287.  In the space of those 5-plus issues, the creative team delivered one of the best storylines in the history of comics.

The storyline centers on the re-awakening of cosmic villain Darkseid after a sleep of nearly a millennium.  The brainchild of Jack Kirby, Darkseid was the evil lord of the planet Apokolips, which was continuously at war with the noble New Gods.  Their struggle formed the central theme of Kirby’s Fourth World family of titles that ran from 1970 to 1973.

However, neither the Legion nor any but the most careful and astute reader knows who the bad guy is until nearly the end.  The creative team manages this feat by adroit writing and cleverly conceived and implemented visuals.

All the reader knows at the beginning of issue #287 is that…

An investigation by two Legion members (Mon-El and Shadow Lass) triggers a reaction from powerful defensive systems capable of staggering even Mon-El’s Superman-level of strength.  Reluctantly forced to flee, they fail to witness the stirring of their mysterious enemy.

As the story unfolds in issue #290, the Legion quickly find themselves facing off against Darkseid’s Servants of Darkness, beings whose appearance is obscured

and yet who are

strangely familiar.

Each servant is tasked with retrieving mystical objects such as one servant stealing a wand

while another takes the legendary sword Excalibur.

All these items serve to fuel Darkseid’s ever-growing power.

The Legion is barely able to keep themselves from being killed in their encounters with the servants, as the latter all boast Superman-level power.

Eventually, they capture the weakest servant

and only then do they begin to put the pieces together to understand that the servants are corrupted clones of some of the most powerful entities who ever lived.

Even armed with this knowledge, the Legion can’t stop Darkseid.  Once fully revitalized, he learns of Daxam, a world inhabited by a splinter group of Kryptonians who were vulnerable to lead not kryptonite.  Realizing he can sway an entire army of supermen to his will, Darkseid invades.

Bending all 3 billion inhabitants to his will, his first command is for them to terraform their planet into a monstrous monument to his godhead

It is only at this point, as the planet is silhouetted against the red sun of Daxam (the final pages of issue #293), that the reader becomes privy to the fact that the villain is Darkseid.

Charged up by the magical artifacts he’s consumed and commanding a 3-billion large army of supermen, Darkseid is on the verge of defeating the entire galaxy.  Barely able to divert the least part of his assault, the Legion’s future is bleak.  Their only hope lies with a small child summoned to the thirtieth century from the depths of time by a band of sorcerers.  The child quickly ages to maturity, revealing that he is none other than Izaya, the High Father of the New Gods, who had kept Darkseid and his minions in check.

Izaya’s first act is to restore one of the servants to his uncorrupted form; the form of Orion, the son and prophesized assassin of Darkseid himself.

Because this Orion clone is not a complete copy of the original, Darkseid is able to defeat him, but at great cost.  Sensing that the tide is turning as much of his energy is now drained, the Legion presses Darkseid.  In these last hours, even Superman and Supergirl find their way into the battle

enhanced by Izaya with the ability to be a threat even to the dark god.

Despite the pounding he’s taken, Darkseid is still defiant

until he realizes that he has lost his control over the Daxamites and that an immense, super-powered army was heading to destroy him.

Aware that he can’t win, Darkseid retreats from the galaxy, beaten back for the foreseeable future but always lurking on the edges of thought and nightmare.

Well crafted and nimbly paced, the core narrative is enhanced by the side arcs and personal dramas that add the human facets.  The Invisible Kid’s apprehension of his first assignment in the face of an enemy so powerful, the ongoing shame of Chameleon Boy’s trial and imprisonment, the impending birth of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, and the ongoing rivalry between the members running for election to the head of the Legion are just some of these side arcs that remind us that there are real human beings (or alien beings) whose lives are being affected by this cosmic melodrama.

The creative team added a number of visual details that enhanced the mood.  For example, until the final reveal, Darkseid and his servants are always seen in an orange and brown shadow surrounded by pink and magenta and blue coruscating energy fields.  This common theme trains the reader to associate the terror of the servants with this look-and-feel much in the way that the moviegoer was trained to associate the ‘dum-um, dum-um’ sound with the presence of the shark in Jaws.

Specific physical acts are also used to convey the brutality of servants and their master.  On at least two occasions, the villains, using the ability to warp spacetime, come up behind members of the Legion and execute an attack out of nowhere

Not content with focusing solely on the bad guys, the creative team added visual perks to the Legion’s look-and-feel.  One of the more interesting and visually pleasing ones was the Mission Monitor Board, which allowed the member on monitor duty to have a situational report of the various teams.

The green background with cyan iconography becomes almost as interesting to look at as the rest of the storyline and offers the interested reader a sort of puzzle-book activity trying to associate each icon with the corresponding Legion member.

The members themselves were also treated with loving care in their physical appearance.  Perhaps the most notable was Dream Girl, whose physical appearance was, shall we say, spared no expense.

Finally, the creative team left small clues, both verbal and visual, as to the identity the identity of the major villain; clues that rewarded the careful reader who tracked them down.  Most notable were the subtle indications that one of the servants was Orion.  First, Levitz makes a point of slipping in one (and only one) mention of the Astro Force

a power only wielded by Orion.  Second, in one small panel, we see the same servant stripped of all the shadows.

The familiar profile of Orion is there to see if one knew what to look for.  One more detail, in the same panel, is the use of the ‘PLOINK’ sound effect.  In the original Kirby Fourth World and subsequent comics, this space warp makes a characteristic ‘BOOM’ sound and is called, as a result, a boom tube.

These clues were lost on me in 1982 as I had never seen or had heard about the New Gods.  Subsequently, I’ve tracked down and acquired back issues and have tried to stay current on new storylines involving the conflict between New Genesis and Apokolips.  And, while each of these is interesting, none capture the shear excitement and appeal as does The Great Darkness Saga.

 

The Business of Comics: Doctor Strange – It Sounded Good

I thought I would shake things a bit this month and focus a bit more on the business decisions made in the comics industry rather than the usual focus of reviewing comic series, looking at overlap of comics with other media, or on the construction of the stories themselves.   The case study will be the Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme series that ran from November 1988 to June 1996.

The impetus of this idea is threefold.  First, as usual readers might note, I have a fondness for Doctor Strange.  While not the flashiest of characters, Doctor Strange has, when handled correctly, present an opportunity for metaphysical exploration that is difficult to find in other venues.  Second, this an almost ideal case demonstrating the risk associated with trying to emulate a competitor (in this case Vertigo comics).  Third, I had some personal involvement on the far fringes of this story when I engaged in a long and somewhat acrimonious argument with the writer who was at the helm of the book’s demise.

Now an obvious question is why bother talking about an old series now.  The simple answer is that the success of the MCU’s Doctor Strange movie did a lot to rehabilitate that character in my mind and it returned my enthusiasm for all things Strange.  In turn, that enthusiasm prompted me to give a second look at the series, now with the perspective of time.

Before reviewing the fall of this series, let me set the stage.  Marvel was the leader in comics from about 1966 to the start of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme series.  A very helpful chart of the sale figures of both companies has been compiled over at zak-site.com, which clearly shows Marvel sales climbing in the mid-80s while DC’s stayed relatively flat at half the level.  Marvel had the upper hand in most things except for adult horror.

The success of the Swamp Thing under the guidance of Alan Moore in the mid-80s was capped by the popularity of and critical attention paid to the Sandman series, helmed by Neil Gaiman, towards the end of that decade. The Vertigo line that spun off from these two books became one of the one shining spot in DC’s offerings.  No doubt, Marvel looked at that and thought there is a market share that they couldn’t or shouldn’t overlook and that whatever Vertigo was doing they could do just as well or better.  The following letter and response are from issue #74.

They had a stable of horror-related characters that had served them well in the seventies (Morbius, Hannibal Drake, Blade, etc.) and the relaunch of Ghost Rider in March 1990 proved so successful that a strong competitor line to Vertigo looked in their grasp.  Looking for additional characters to join the stable, they decided to reinvent Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme, then a reasonably successful second-tier comic that sold between 70 and 100 thousand issues a month.

That success was large due to the writing of Roy Thomas, who set the stage for the subsequent transformation with his story device of the War of the Seven Spheres introduced in issue #48.   Whether intended to be a plot device for the ongoing story or a strategic move for a planned transformation, the War of the Seven Spheres is a conflict between many (if not all) the extra-dimensional entities – Vishanti, Ikonn, Cytorrak, Watoomb, Seraphim, etc. – upon whom he had often called.

As they fight over who ‘owns’ him, Strange rejects their millennia-long conflict and severs his ties to them, leaving him significantly underpowered and ready for change.  That change comes in the form of the of crossover event called The Siege of Darkness.

With its roots deeply entwined with the Ghost Rider title, The Siege of Darkness storyline provides a mechanism for rebooting most of the seventies horror characters and pitting them against a host of new villains.  The primary one for the purposes of Doctor Strange is an earlier Sorceress Supreme by the name of Salome (a deus ex machina character introduced in Marvel Comics Presents #146)

who not only defeats Strange but also ‘infects’ him with her elemental magic.  With no extra-dimensional beings to call upon, Strange implements a desperate plan.  He first destroys his mansion, then replaces himself in the real world by two magical automatons: a being simply called Strange and Doctor Eric Stevens.

each carrying some of his magical might and a specific facet of his personality (issues #60-61).  All that is left is a mere shell of the once great magician

plotting a scheme to defeat Salome with his new Gaian Magic.  This sundering persists until issue #75, when the good doctor becomes essentially whole again and much younger in look and manner.

David Quinn, who wrote the series from issue #60, would depart four issues later, his swan song coming in issue #79.  By then the damage had been done and no reversal would fix it as series came to an end less than a year later.  The following table shows the average and latest circulation numbers by issue from the Statement of Ownership declaration.

Issue # 12-Month Average Latest
51 110,238 132,500
62 105,087 67,285
75 52,083 40,300
85 35,133 31,000

 

Marvel tried to brand the whole family of darker/horror/magic themed comics as Marvel Edge (see letter page figure above) but that branding never seemed to land and hold the way Vertigo did for DC.  As the Doctor Strange transformation played out, Marvel editorial staff switched from being generally supportive (mostly positive letters on the letters page in issues #68-74) to frankly critical (no letters pages or strongly negative and critical ones in issues #77-79).  This was an unusual move for a company with a history of putting the best face on flagging sales and seems to indicate their vote of no-confidence in Quinn’s method of making the middle-aged doctor appeal to the Vertigo crowd without alienating the pre-existing base.

In a move to restore Doctor Strange to a pre-Quinn state, Marvel hurriedly had him regain support from the extra-dimensional entities by serving in the millennia-long War of the Seven Spheres over a month’s worth of Earth-time along with his middle-aged look and sensibilities; all of this happens between issues, indicating a ‘quick let’s try to fix this’ attitude in the marketing or sales department.  J. M. DeMatteis, who became the writer in issue #84, managed to neatly tie up many loose plot threads while also telling a touching story about the final resolution of the relationship between Doctor Strange and Baron Mordo.

And so ended a bold, misplaced experiment by an industry leader trying to emulate a niche-market product by a trendier competitor.  There is a certain irony in the demise of Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme.  I met David Quinn at the Philadelphia Comic Fest in 1993, just around the time Marvel was building up his forth-coming tenure and the new era it would usher in.  Quinn explained his ‘geomancy’ ideas to me and I argued vehemently with him that it wouldn’t work.  We stood outside the Marvel booth and argued for over a half an hour before we finally went our separate ways.  I was one of those who quickly dropped the book as he transformed the everything in sight.  Just recently, I bought the missing issues and read the whole run from his takeover in issue #60 to the end.  Taken in totality and read in quick succession, it turns out that the story wasn’t bad and even had interesting and charming parts.  But it was a story that refused to honor the past Doctor Strange stories and so alienated the old fans and yet was not edgy enough to attract the Vertigo fans (of which I was one).  Sadly, it ended up simply being a dark moment in the business of comics.

The Black Monday Murders

On the surface of it there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of comic book fare in the stock market crash on October 24, 1929.  Certainly, there is ample material for textbooks on economics and governmental policy willing and eager to discuss, argue about, and pontificate over Black Thursday, but surely there is nothing for comics.

Well, the creative team of Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tomm Coker (artist), Michael Garland (colorist), and Rus Wooton (letterist) clearly don’t agree with that sentiment.  Their new series The Black Monday Murders, which is published by Image and is currently up to issue #5, centers in on the oft misquoted adage that money is the root of all evil.

In short, the plot deals with three entities:  the satanic power that underlies banking and finance, the influential human elite who’ve made a deal with the devil for power and money, and the police who are called in to investigate the ritualistic murder of one of these elites on October 31, 2016 (the Black Monday from which the series derives its name).

The satantic power is mostly present by way of its absence; it is never directly seen, only occasionally discussed and then always obliquely, but is always lurking behind each move and decision of the power-elite.  The latter are organized into various financial institutions called schools (Western, Eastern, Middle-Eastern, Asian, etc.), each vying for wealth and control while trying to circumvent what the devil is due.  The police are mostly a non-factor background element except for the lone detective charged with getting to the bottom of who killed the victim and why.

The bulk of the action centers on the co-joined Western and Eastern school called the Caina-Kankrin Investment Bank.  Originally Caina side was comprised of 4 ruling families:  The Ackermans, The Rothschilds, The Dominics, and The Bischoffs.  When the series opens we see the crash of 1929 just starting, complete with magical transformations on the trading floor.

The initial panic and mayhem are shortly followed by a far more sinister outcome.  It seems that when the crash comes (i.e., the devil is getting his due), the person left holding the ‘Stone Chair’ must be sacrificed by the other families.  The reader is then treated to a ritualistic murder of Charles Ackerman at the hands of Milton Rothschild while Raymond Dominic and J.W. Bischoff watch.

Hickman employs his usual non-sequential storytelling technique to gradually reveal that the Caina investment house, seeking a way to free itself of the Stone Chair sacrifice, coerces a merger with the Eastern School, the Russian Kankrin financial institution, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This merger forces the Stone Chair into Kankrin’s control but sets the two halves into conflict (their wheels turn in opposite ways – see the following figure).

Years later, some, as yet, unrevealed hostility arising from the merger leads to the murder of Daniel Rothschild, grandson of Milton Rothschild, and holder of the Ascendant Seat, which affords the holder control of Caina-Kankrin.  His murderer, a member of the original Russian Kankrin cadre and a current holder of the Stone Chair, not only takes no steps in covering his tracks but he also positions the dead body as a clue for the police.

It so happens that the officer assigned to the case, one Detective Dumas, is intuitive, clever, and possibly psychically enabled.  He quickly realizes not only that the body has been positioned like the arms of the clock but also the significance of the time indicated.

This set of events positions Dumas to begin to investigate Caina-Kankrin, a task he is aided in by the assistance and consultation of Dr. Gaddis, Professor of Economics at Fordham.  Like an episode of Colombo, the identity of the murderer is not really in question.  The real trick is the motive for the crime and whether or not Dumas will be able to extract justice.

The drama and tension of The Black Monday Murders derives mostly from the internal family dynamic in Caina-Kankrin.  In particular, old grudges between the various original families and between the Caina and Kankrin pieces, and conflict of values between the old ways of evil and an emerging sentiment to do good with all that money form the dynamic interplay.

Visually, the use of color and line style sets an oppressive mood well suited to the conspiratorial framework of the tale.  Design elements common to Hickman tales also tend to show up, including stylistic alphabets and languages, presumably of his own making,

and a presentation of magical beings in monochromatic ways.  Consider, for example, the many faces of the Rothschild familiar, Abbadon (‘affectionately’ called Abby), through the various epochs visited in the story.

Abby seems quite comfortable transitioning from a 1920s flapper style, thru a 1950s harridan ensemble and 1980s new wave look, to a 2010s ‘lesbian chic’ (starting on the left and moving counterclockwise), allowing her to always work her evil while looking her best.

Hickman’s dialog is also on point.  Consider this exchange between Professor Gaddis and Detective Dumas as the former tries to explain to the latter why ‘money’ is so bad

Additional touches add to the verisimilitude, including historic recounts that lend an archaeological  background to the mysterious language so integral to the satanic influence of Mammon in the story,

and narrative support devices, like the written transcript of a meeting between the Caina-Kankrin member Victor Eresko and his corporate lawyer, Andrew Wright, where redaction leads to revelation.

I’ll close with some personal observations.  First, this work seems strongly inspired in its narrative construction by the Watchmen, specifically because of the presence of many pages of ‘textual’ material (transcripts, police reports, excerpts from diaries, etc.).  Second, there is a distinct overlap with earlier conspiratorial works, primarily the Illuminatus Trilogy, although this work treats the subject matter of a vast conspiracy with a lot more reverence and seriousness.  Finally, whether The Black Monday Murders turn out to be a financial success or not, it is an excellent example of how putting story first makes for an entertaining product.

Mantis Retrospective

Well Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, has proven itself to be the first big blockbuster of the summer season.  The entire gang are there, Starlord, Rocket, Drax, Gamora, and Groot (assuming that you count Baby Groot as the same as Groot in the first movie).  In addition, we are introduced to some new characters, including Ego the Living Planet and Mantis, his empathic companion.  But a relatively small percentage of the movie-going public likely know the publication history of Mantis in the comics.  This post attempts to fill in this gap for those who are being introduced to Mantis for the time.

Pound-for-pound, Mantis may have had the greatest impact on Marvel comics of any character.  Her initial tales cover only about 2 years, starting in Avengers #112 and ending with Giant-Sized Avengers #4, at total of 27 comic books.

The brain child of Steve Engelhart, the Mantis, when she first appears in Avengers #112, is relegated to a mere 3 panels where she is in the company of a mystery man, whose identity is later revealed to the be former super-villain Swordsman – now reformed and seeking entrance into the Avengers.

Her initial appearance is rather modest and she is missing her characteristic antennae.

Her subsequent storyline through the Avengers over the next 2 years can only be described as ‘Flat out weird’, using Engelhart’s own introduction to the book.

Her next appearance in Avengers #113 is also limited to 3 panels in her modest garb but by the time she appears on the cover of Avengers #114, she has now been transformed into a sensuous femme fatale whose is one part martial artist, one part empath, and one part sex-symbol.

Demonstrating an unparalleled ability to control her own body, Mantis is able to even lay Thor low with her martial arts techniques (as she often says ‘strength is nothing compared with skill’).

Her empathic abilities provide here with some rudimentary command of the mystic arts

And clearly Englehart and his various artists delight in depicting her in sensuous and slinky positions

Her situation quickly complicates.  Her background story as a gutter snipe raised on the streets of Saigon is soon challenged when the Libra, one of the 12 super-villains in the Zodiac, confesses to being her father.

Libra relates quite a different story.  He was a German mercenary working for the French in Viet Nam.  He meets a girl called Lua (took her back to his place, feeling guilt, feeling scared), fell in love,  and eventually married her.  Unfortunately, her brother, Monsieur Khruul, is an infamous Vietnamese crime lord and he doesn’t take kindly to his sister marrying outside her race.  Finally catching up with the married couple, now raising a baby daughter, the maniac orders his men to burn all them alive.  Lua is killed, but Libra, now horribly disfigured, escapes with Mantis into the jungle.

Libra discovers the temple manned by the Priests of Pama, who train both him and his daughter in the martial arts.  The priests take a special interest in the girl, helping her to unlock vast untapped aspects of human existence

Unfortunately, the Priests keep Libra apart from his child

and he returns to the outside world, to take up a mantel of crime lord.

Mantis is quick to dismiss Libra’s story as a complicated pack of lies and that may have settled it, except for a set of actions her fickle nature sets in motion.  Her innate attraction to powerful men causes her to start flirting with the Vision.  Mad with jealously, the Swordsman, deciding to prove himself worthy of her love, rushes to Saigon to exact revenge on Monsieur Khruul.

Instead, the Swordsman is bested by Khruul’s men.  Tortured, he relates Libra’s story to Khruul, who then orders all the Priests of Pama killed.  The Avengers and Libra, following hot on the Swordsman’s heels, arrive at the temple where they bring Khruul’s men to justice.  However, Khruul escapes.

They later find him dead, ripped to shreds by an extraterrestrial entity called the Star Stalker that absorbs most forms of energy.  The Star Stalker reveals that the Priests of Pama were in fact Kree Pacifists and that they alone knew how to defeat him.  With them gone, he threatens to consume the Earth in revenge.  With the priests dead, all hope seems gone.  Insisting his story is true, Libra turns to Mantis, insisting that the priests would have taught her the secret as well and that all she needs to do is recover her memories.

Much to her surprise, Mantis realizes that she does know the Star Stalkers weakness and she soon directs the Vision in destroying him.  Her conflict over her past further alienates her from the Swordsman

and when pressed she spurns him and turns all her affection to the Vision.

This burgeoning love triangle is soon interrupted with the arrival of Kang the Conqueror from the future announcing that his goal is to find and wed the Celestial Madonna.

Kang makes short work of most of the Avengers, capturing them so that he may determine who is the Celestial Madonna.  Considering him beneath contempt, Kang leaves the Swordsman behind.  This proves to be a serious mistake, as the Swordsman is able to recruit other versions of Kang from other times to stop him.  Unfortunately, the Swordsman is killed in the process.

Mantis insists that the Swordsman be buried in Saigon.  After the ceremony, she begins to examine her life and finds herself in no way worthy of being a possible Celestial Madonna.

In the meantime, Kang beaten but not driven back, remounts his attack to claim the Celestial Madonna.  Again his alternative selfs assist in his defeat and one of them, Immortus, provides the Avengers with the means to untangle Mantis’s past once-and-for-all.

As the story comes, together, the Avengers discover that Mantis’s origin is inextricably tied to the Kree, Skrulls, and a new race the Cotati

who also began their existence on the Kree Home world.  Eons ago, the Skrulls were more technologically advanced than either the Kree or the Cotati.  They gave the Kree and Cotati a chance to share in their technology – it was to be the prize for winning a competition as to which race could best use the Skrull technology.

The competition was held on the Earth’s moon and, at the end of the year allotted, the Kree had built the Blue City, the future home to the Watcher.  In contrast, the Cotati had built a park.  The Skrulls, impressed by the work of the Cotati, are poised to pick them winners when the Kree slaughter all the plant people.   They then kill the Skrulls, coopt their technology, and start the eternal Kree-Skrull war.

But not all Kree turn out to be militant.  The pacifists among them choose a different path.  Shunned by their society, they train in defense and spirituality.  One day they discover that the Cotati were not all wiped out by the initial genocidal rage of their ancestors.  It is hard to kill a race that produces seeds.  But these Cotati are no longer mobile, having chosen to give up action, instead focusing on their refinement of their mental abilities.  They form an alliance with the pacifist Kree.  Their partnership is cut short when the Kree imprison the pacifists on a prison planer.  The Cotati are able to engineer their freedom in exile by attracting the Star Stalker and them helping them realize how to defeat his menace.  By doing so, the pacifists are able to appeal to the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who agrees to allow  them to journey in exile to many worlds.  Unbeknownst to the Supreme Intelligence, the exiles take the Cotati with them.  The pair that heads to Earth found the Priests of Pama and plant their Cotati companions in the garden in Saigon where Swordsman is buried.

Swordsman’s body is now animated by the Cotati

and after some adventures too long to relate, Mantis agrees to marry him, thus facilitating the first animal-plant mating from which will come the most powerful being on Earth.

The rest on Mantis’s story is not very interesting.  After he left Marvel, Engelhart was able to introduce a Mantis-like character in both DC and Eclipse comics.  Mantis eventually resurfaces in Marvel comics as both a mother to Sequoia (her celestial offspring), a lover to the Silver Surfer, and a murderous freak seeking revenge for the ‘lies’ visited upon her by Libra, the Cotati, and the Avengers.  Unfortunately, she never again inspired the interest she had under Steve Englehart in the initial 2-year run of flat out weird stuff indeed.  Hopefully her MCU trajectory will be a lot more interesting.

 

Styles and Moods and the Comics Zeitgeist

Over the past several decades, I’ve pondered what is the equivalent of the chicken-and-the egg question in comics: how much does the art drive the writing versus the other way around and how does the tension between these different creative outlets shape the final story.  In a previous column, I looked at this from the point of view of a specific pairing of writer and artist.  Last month, I looked at the statistics associated with the mechanical aspects of making a page.  This month I thought I would conduct a survey of styles and moods across comics history, starting with the beginning of the Golden Age in the late 1930s.  The samples presented here are part of the larger set I used last month.

I am a sucker for the old school, Golden Age comics (at least most of them).  They seem to have a certain charm in the art style and the choice of word and phrase.  Consider the following page from Marvel Comics #1 (technically the reprint version made freely available as part of Halloween ComicFest in 2014).

If you didn’t know where the above snippet was from, there is still a good chance, even if you aren’t a comics aficionado, that you would be able to predict is was ‘old timey’ (1939 being the year that this was first published).

What makes it so distinctive?  Clearly it is one part art style, one part panel layout, one part subject matter, and one part word choice and location.  There is a certain zeitgeist that comics of this era have – a collective way of thinking about and presenting the story that makes it distinctive – much like the movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  Even more distinctive than the art, the attitude of the main characters signal the period in U.S. history when this was produced.  The Human Torch seems completely unconcerned about the havoc he is wreaking and the firefighters act completely unconcerned about their own safety.  There is a certain carefree quality that typically marks the stories from this time span.  Even when the characters display serious emotion, there is very little in the way of equivocation or self-doubt and debate.

As time progressed, this Golden Age Zeitgeist stayed remarkably unchanged during the lead up to World War II.  It was as if the industry thought there was only one way to please the audience and, as with other popular arts of its time, rock steady was the watch word.  Bright optimistic colors and stories were the mainstay.

In the aftermath of the war, the superhero genre just about died, being replaced with ‘more sophisticated’ fare.  The horror comics from EC set the standard and were the best reflections of this new zeitgeist.  A page, taken from the Vault of Horror #14, shows the characteristic tone and mode.  The panel layout doesn’t differ much from the previous era, but the art is darker and more angular.  This change in look-and-feel reflects the change in content.  Upbeat optimism is replaced by cynical and cautionary tales that are much closer in content to a cross between the morality play and the Greek tragedy, with a heavy dose of irony thrown in for good measure.

Characters ponder and debate with themselves.  They dabble in shady and morally ambiguous behaviors.  Lies and subterfuge are common motifs that add to the suspense of the tale.  This mood persisted, even after the Seduction of the Innocent events in the mid-1950s.  Explicit displays of horror and terror within the tales may have been blunted but the content continued to focus on the bizarre and fantastic (monsters, magic, or science fiction), the cautionary and the twist, as evidenced by this page from Amazing Adventures #1 showing what happens when science runs amok.

The bright colors had returned but not the bright attitude.

Perhaps ironically, the force of censorship that Wertham championed married the two earlier styles and made the fertile ground that gave birth to the revival of the superhero comic in the mid-1960s.  Thus bringing back in popularity the wish-fulfillment he warned so vehemently against.

The next change in mood accompanied the social upheaval of the 1960s and brought along in its wake a fresh approach to page layout and content.  Panels were no longer as clearly delineated as they had been before but became more ‘organic’.  Artistic freedom matched a more liberal range in subject matter, covering institutional of societal woes like racism, drug use, and social unrest.  Perhaps no single series made as big an impact as the Green Lantern/Green Arrow Tales.  Consider the following page from Green Lantern #78 dealing with cults.

Mood, character tone, and dialog are an amalgam from the earlier eras.  Bright costumed adventurers are found side-by-side with creepy elements and moody images.  The dialog is also ambiguous, harkening in style to the horror comics of the 1950s but with a far more moral outlook.   This deeper dialog was often wordier as well; action took a back seat to more in depth and drama and cerebral activity were more important that throwing punches and causing mayhem.

The 1980s saw a regression-to-the-mean as many comics backed away from the social issues and cerebral tales and returned to more action.  But the nature of the action was different; super hero comics became grittier (e.g. the rise of the Punisher) even while the overall page look-and-feel became more traditional and the subject matter less controversial.

Still, not all creators were willing to let go of the freedom and flexibility to explore alternative subject matter.  New genres and sub-cultures started springing up (Vertigo leading the forefront) and the 80s epoch would mark the last time that a common zeitgeist would exist across most of comics.

As an example, consider the stark difference between this page from The Legion of Super-heroes #291 (1982)

and this one from Sandman #3 (1988)

Both are from DC. The Legion story deals with end of the galaxy under the subjugation of Darkseid while the Sandman story deals with the torment of one person and degradation of a single person and yet the former is far lighter in color, line, mood and dialog than the latter.

This continuous fracturing only accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s.  The primary difference in artistic mood being driven by technical matters rather than by a collective aim to provide uplifting messages or societal examination or the like.  The rise of digital arts and new composing and printing processes was accompanied by the loss of gutters and panels.  Images superimposed on images were the norm, regardless of subject matter and story mood.  An excellent example of this is from Darkseid versus Galactus: The Hunger (1995)

The only ‘zeitgeist’ that seemed to exist was one associated with technique and not content.  This love affair with digital effects and eye candy has yet to subside, but there has been a movement back to a more traditional page layout and simpler art even as the number of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres have increased.  That said, any visual similarities in page layout are drowned amidst the vast variety of art styles and moods.  In terms of art, the industry has essentially splintered into ever smaller niches, much in the way cable television and the music industry has.

One common theme seems to exist in terms of content.  Driven perhaps by political correctness and a sense of social justice, the content has become increasingly homogeneous, not in plot or subject matter, but in sensibility.  This is a remarkably sad thing to note.  After all, this very same industry, which struggled so-hard to free itself from the censorship and rigidly-defined topic areas imposed on it during the 1950s, is now rigidly self-policing any voices that differ from the accepted standard.  Hopefully, this zeitgeist will soon pass into history.

Words and Comics

Last month’s exploration of the triumphs, trials, tribulations, and tensions between the creative work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko got me terribly nostalgic for a time.  Looking at all those works from the 1960s and 70s brought out the old feeling that the new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff.

There are certainly many ways to criticize that feeling and I have engaged in them all.  I tell myself that many of the comics I read as a child formed my expectations, particularly where the art style and subject matter are concerned.  My emotional and mental maturity wasn’t as great then as it is now.  I’m out of touch with modern approaches.  And so on.

While I’ve considered each and every one of those possible objections, none of them explain my admiration and enjoyment of the old Golden and Silver Age books.  After all, I wasn’t exposed to the Golden Age material until I was well into my third decade and my appreciation the Silver Age material came even later.

To be more concrete, let’s take the following page from Avengers #134 from 1975:

This is one of the scenes from the Steve Engelhart’s Celestial Madonna storyline in the Avengers.  The art is from Sal Buscema (illustrator) and Joe Staton (inker).  The content is pure, trippy, new age cosmic metaphysics – a blend of science fiction and mysticism.  To give a flavor of just how trippy, the storyline centers around Mantis, a character created by Engelhart, who is a combination priestess, martial artist, whore, and celestial savior.  The storyline culminates with her marriage to a dead lover who, after his demise, had become reanimated by an intelligent plant species.

Consider now this page from the Golden Age appearance of the Sub-Mariner from Marvel Comics #1 from 1939.

The brainchild of Bill Everett, this version of the Sub-Mariner is quite different in visual style, content, and mood from the Bronze Age version.  No cosmic opera, no galactic scope, no celestial superpowers.  The entire story has quite a different look-and-feel in all aspects, and yet there is a charm in these pages that captures my interest.

Likewise, the following page from Crypt of Terror #19 (1950) from the short story entitled Ghost Ship with story and art by Al Feldstein.

This is a traditional ghost story about a couple who ‘find’ a derelict pirate ship and slowly unravel a tale of violence and betrayal from centuries earlier.  The style and mood are clearly the gritty 1950s and they are a far cry from either the light-hearted adventure of the Sub-Mariner or the cosmic opera in the Avengers.

I find all these styles enjoyable and satisfying; both the styles from my youth and the styles I encountered as a result.

Now let’s look at a more modern offering.  For this case, I offer one of the more egregious examples I’ve found from Iron Man #77 (2004).

I tried to put into words just what was wrong.  At first, I thought it was simply a matter of style.  The art, while technically competent, is uninspiring and fairly monochromatic.  There isn’t much in the way of movement or action or dynamism nor is the dialog interesting and or engaging.

Later, I decided that none of these critiques quite captured the essence of my distaste.  A counterexample to most of these critiques is the following page from the Thanos Imperative #4 from 2010.

The art is of a higher quality than the Iron Man example above.  The dialog is better as well, even if it is a bit long-winded and ponderous.  There are traditional panels and gutters compared to the panel-on-top-of-panel style in the previous page and the color scheme has a lot more variation.  So technically, this page was better in most aspects than the Iron Man example and yet there I was still unsatisfied.  Somehow, the thing that was bothering me was escaping my ability to articulate.

The only place left to turn, now that subjective art critiques had failed, was to collect some objective data.  To this end, I semi-randomly chose 32 different pages spanning the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages.  My only criterion was to find pages from material I liked and disliked that had roughly the same structure – a page with a mix of dialog and action.  Once selected, I simply counted the words on the page and how they were distributed by panel to produce 3 statistics:  total words per page, the number of panels per page, and the average words per panel.

The following graph, which shows the total number of words per page as a function of year shows that there is only a slightly discernable trend over the time span that tends to suggest that the number of words per page has dropped modestly in the Modern Age.

The variation in the number of words per page by year is mostly a function of the author rather than the style of any of the ages.

The graph of words per panel shows no trend whatsoever.

Apparently, the same amount of verbal information, to within variations due to story demands and author, is being conveyed.

However, when the panels per page is graphed, a fairly discernable trend appears.

Over the time span from 1940 to 2000, there is a continuous drop in the number of panels presented on the page.  When I went back and looked at the Golden Age stories, the style was to push a large number of small panels onto every page.  This made the page look rather busy.  This practice was eventually dropped and, over the course of years, the number has slowly declined until it hit a minimum around 2004/2005.

After I found this result, I reexamined the Thanos Imperative series.  Most pages have only 3 or 4 panels and the example I provided above was a rare case with 5.  As the number of panels has been dropping, the industry had been cutting back in storytelling content in way that was far from obvious by examining art style or dialog content.

So, there you have it.  My distaste with the Modern Age style (at least in the mid-2000s) was due to the fact that I was aware on a subconscious level that the industry was gipping me out of a bunch of storytelling.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a drop in the average number of panels per page from the value of 8 in 1938 to 4 in 2005 is literally a drop of 4000 words per page.  Given that there are roughly 20 pages per comic book, that amounts to 80,000 word per book.  We all have paid for millions fewer words than we would have gotten decades earlier.  Fortunately, that trend seems to have reversed a little and that’s all to the good.

Writers and Artists

A few short weeks ago, while roaming through the local comic book store, I happened on a reprint volume published by Dark Horse comics entitled Creepy Presents Steve Ditko.  As is obvious from my previous columns, I have a general fondness for the old Doctor Strange stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  I also have an affection for stories of the macabre – not horror stories per se, but rather weird stories of the bizarre; stories that try to stretch the concepts of reality and reset the boundaries of perception.  So, I figured, why not give it a chance.

Once home, I settled into a comfortable spot and looked forward to an hour or two of thought-provoking tales of the twisted and strange.  What I got instead was far more food for thought than I bargained for, and none of it from the stories presented in the volume.

In the book’s foreword, Mark Evanier launches into his history of Ditko, essentially in the middle of the tale, by starting with one of the most publicly acrimonious events in comics history:  the departure of Ditko from Marvel Comics.  As Evanier puts it

Just before Thanksgiving of 1965 – some accounts say February of ’66 – Steve Ditko turned in his last Spider-Man story for Marvel Comics.  Anyone interested enough in Ditko to purchase this book knows the grandeur of that work and the major jolt in comic book history that occurred when it ended.

His resignation was not wholly unexpected.  He and editor-scripter Stan Lee had not been getting along for quite a while, disagreeing as they did about the direction of the series, the underlying philosophy of it and its world, and the division of their labor.

Whether Evanier meant his words to be a distraction or not, I found myself quite unable to concentrate on the stories themselves.  Instead, I kept returning to the reoccurring debate as to who is more important: the writer or the artist.

The tension between artist and writer is a reoccurring theme in the comics industry.  I was present at the Great Debate between Peter David and Todd McFarlane at the ’93 Comic Con in Philadelphia.  For those who don’t know, David (writer) and McFarlane (artist) had a fine run on The Incredible Hulk before they had some sort of falling out.  The debate, which was an aftershock of that split, was handily won by David.  And considering that the book barely lost a step with the departure of McFarlane, one might be inclined to say, at least in this case, the artist was not as important as the writer.  This is a well-supported conclusion given the paucity of storytelling demonstrated by McFarlane in his book Spawn.

On the other hand, John Byrne demonstrated that an artist can be quite a great storyteller, in fact better than the writer he was originally paired with, when he moved off of The X-Men and out from the shadow of Chris Claremont.

The situation is far more complex and nuanced in the case of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  Together, this pair created two of the most enduring comics characters in Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.

Exactly how should the credit be apportioned between the two of them for the creation of Spider-Man has been the source of much debate.  Was Lee the driving force behind the idea while Ditko merely set the visuals?  Or was Ditko’s costume design and moody panels the key with Lee’s writing taking a back seat?

I think the answer lies not in one pole or the other but in the tension that resulted from their opposition.  In his article on Ditko (The Creator of Doctor Strange Will Not See You Now), Abraham Riesman says

Even as they were crafting these early adventures of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, there was friction between Lee and Ditko. At first, it was productive: Lee loved poppy, witty, ingratiating verbiage, but the characters Ditko put into the stories often looked unnerving and anguished; Lee liked high-flying action, Ditko wanted pathos.

The resulting character was unlike any other in the superhero corpus: an awkward, despairing, and oft seething teenager who struggled through life both in and out of costume, but managed to banter his way through the darkness and always triumphed in the end. He was a kid who saw his powers as a burden and only assumed a heroic mantle after tragedy forced him to reevaluate his life choices, but who leapt and swung along the rooftops with acrobatic aplomb. It’s hard to imagine either Lee or Ditko coming up with such a contradictory and revolutionary character on their own.

And contradictory it certainly was. Consider this panel from The Amazing Spider-Man #27. Ditko’s art is wonderfully expressive while also being minimalist. Just Spider-Man and the chains. Is this panel really helped by the campy dialog that informs the reader that Peter has flexing chest muscles that make him feel like a bodybuilder in a b-movie?

On the other hand are the following panels extracted from Amazing Fantasy #15.

It’s hard to say that Ditko’s art is inspiring but the dialog and captions are top notch, including that well-worn quotation about great power and great responsibility.

Of course, there is a lot of speculation as to what made Spider-Man so successful. Certainly, his costume is visually appealing and the overwhelming consensus is that Ditko is responsible for the look and feel. But the main aspect that makes it all so compelling is the tragic back-story, which seems to be due to Lee. It is always harder to clearly apportion credit for plot points.

During their collaboration, Lee and Ditko produced memorable moments that neither achieved afterwards, including the iconic ‘Spider-Man coming between’ Betty Brant’s and Peter Parker’s burgeoning romance (The Amazing Spider-Man #30)

or the famous sequence where Peter is trapped by Doctor Octopus under tons of wreckage (The Amazing Spider-Man 33)

where he refuses to give up until he is free.

Lee’s words and Ditko’s art perfectly complement each other and the reader is left with a story that is a profound blend of courage, sadness, hope and despair.

The Amazing Spider-Man continued to do well after their split and one might argue that the later arcs involving the Kingpin and the death of Gwen Stacy surpassed the work by Lee and Ditko. But in the case of Doctor Strange, their pairing produced a set of stories involving the famous sorcerer that have never been equaled since.

Ditko’s surrealistic images created a new standard in comic book visuals for magical storylines. Lee, drawing on his background writing ‘weird’ stories, created imagination-stirring concepts that blended horror, the macabre, and mysticism without feeling trippy or forced. The pinnacle of their collaboration can be summarized with one image: the encounter between Strange and Infinity, the living embodiment of the universe.

This encounter would not be the awe-inspiring event it was without the Ditko’s visuals to set the mood and without Lee’s storytelling, which built up suspense over the previous 7 stories/84 pages in which Strange raced against time to find a way to defeat the alliance between Baron Mordo and Dormammu.

Neither creator was ever as successful in capturing comic book magic again. Clearly, despite whatever emotional animosity lay between them, their whole was greater than the sum of their parts. Without Ditko’s imagery to inspire, Lee’s subsequent stories began to age, to became tired, repetitive and dated. Without Lee’s plots and words, Ditko’s visuals seemed disassociated and unmotivated.

They had captured lightning in a bottle when they teamed up; too bad it couldn’t last.

A Forgotten Classic

The year was 1989.  The comic book industry was in the midst of the expansion bubble that would eventually burst in 1993 (a story for another day).  Comic books were now not just items in the collectibles market, whose value was based on past performance, but items in a speculative futures market, where value was guessed based with Ponzi-like logic.

In response, publishers pushed better paper and printing processes that littered the landscape with all sorts of novelties guaranteed to turn any issue into an instant classic:  multiple covers, embossed covers, holograms, and foil inserts.  The big two (DC and Marvel) pushed out large arcs, mega arcs, crossovers, and huge interlocking storylines with regular titles supplemented with special issues.  Thousands of pages drenched the reader in color and pageantry and melodrama.

What chance could an independent comic possibly have in competing with all this eye candy?  A learned observer may be inclined to say little or none, especially if the comic was in black and white, dealt with previously unknown characters that find themselves placed in the far more humble circumstances of the urban jungle rather than a world-spanning alien invasion or the cosmic end of the universe.

But, as it turns out, such a learned observer would have been wrong.  James O’Barr’s The Crow showed how a touching, human-focused story coupled with evocative art can more than overcome the lack of the backing of an industry giant.

Crow - Cover Picture

The Crow was so successful that it spawned numerous sequels and a movie and television franchise that persisted for decades after its publication.  What’s most telling is the fact that the original series is as moving and compelling today as it was nearly 30 years ago.

How did this veritable David outpace the mainstream Goliaths?  In a sentence, The Crow was both a labor of love and moving love story.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a short synopsis is useful and spoils nothing; the reason being that, in a real sense, there is nothing to spoil.  There are no plot twists or surprises – simply a story of love, loss, pain, and coping.  The core of the story centers on the tragedy of Eric, a young man who was cruelly and wantonly murdered along with his fiancée Shelly when they have the misfortune to breakdown in a lonely spot where they are found by a gang of street thugs.  About a year later, Eric is granted a chance to come back and set things right.  His soul is transported to the land of the living by a crow, who is both the source of his strength as well as his spirit guide and advisor.

Crow - The Crow Talks

Gifted with invulnerability and superhuman reflexes and strength, Eric begins hunting down the scum who killed him and his fiancée, extracting brutal revenge in a variety methods. His abilities are not exactly classic super powers and it is probably fairer to say that his invulnerability doesn’t protect him from harm so much as it keeps him unharmed even while he is ‘harmed’.  For example, when stabbed with a knife, the blade bites deep, severing flesh and causing blood to flow, but the wounds cause neither pain nor lasting damage.

Crow - Invincible

There is little to no suspense as he achieves his revenge.  The story starts with Eric already resurrected, already empowered, and already seeking revenge.  O’Barr makes it clear that Eric will have his revenge and he will make the punks pay dearly.  The only questions of where, when, and how are minor considerations. The story gets its drive and interest from poetry of love and pain that comes to the reader as he learns more about the love and joy Eric and Shelly shared before the fateful day where they encountered the punks, the pain and suffering of that encounter, and the aftermath of the tragedy.

The story of The Crow is so compelling that it could have succeeded with mediocre art and routine writing.  Fortunately, O’Barr’s art is first rate and his writing above average, turning the tale into a classic.

His visual stylings are basically divided into two parts:  clean lines and well-constructed panels for real-world sequences, and ‘hazy-focused’, softened images for the more emotional or tender sequences.  He is great in using character expressions to enhance the evocative nature of the story, especially around the gut-wrenching events when Eric and Shelly are killed.  Consider the following panel progression just after their car has broken down and the punks have arrived to help.

Crow - It All Started Here

The narrative portion of the writing is solid and, while not often moving, does not detract from the story in any substantial way.  The dialog is where O’Barr shines creating some of the most haunting phrases including ‘Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of all children.’ and ‘Amazing God would waste skin on trash like that…’.

One of the best comes in the following exchange between the Crow and Funboy:

Crow - Great Dialog

From top to bottom, The Crow delivers; delivers on art, on dialog, and, most of all, on story.  All this from a small, independent creator working on a shoe-string budget to create something really meaningful.  If only the big guys would learn the lesson.