Thursday, January 28, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #8: July 1991

Death Becomes Him















Infinity Gauntlet #1
Writer: Jim Starlin      
Penciller: George Perez  
Inkers: Josef Rubinstein and Tom Christopher
Colorists: Max Scheele and Ian Laughlin

*

As I sat in a packed theater in the spring of 2019 watching Avengers: Endgame, I was surrounded by a person in a Spider-Man costume and another in Captain America regalia. It was at that moment that it truly hit me just how far into the mainstream superhero fandom had come. 

As I discussed this in the introduction to this project, there was a time not so long ago that superhero comics were not only shunned, but derided. Now, people are going crazy for a TV show featuring Scarlet Witch and Vision, and my sons play with a life size infinity gauntlet toy. This is, of course, all down to astonishing quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, and as obvious as this is, the MCU wouldn’t be anything without the comics that came before.

It’s become sorely overused to say “I wish my so-and-so-year-old self could see this,” but if we could travel back to the 1991 and tell 14-year-old Paul that his most anticipated comic of the summer would be the become the basis of the a whole series of big-budget movies he would have scoffed. Hard. Fourteen-year-old Paul was so excited about Jim Starlin and George Perez’s Infinity Gauntlet miniseries he actually wore a large rectangular promo button for the book, enduring side-eyes and the occasional derisive, “What’s THAT supposed to be?”

Fast forward three decades and THAT is the basis for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, two of the highest grossing films of all time. Is that vindication that I feel? Not really. I don’t need everyone to love what I love. There’s some pride there, but more than anything it’s just surreal.

Infinity Gauntlet was the first big comics “event” I got to experience first hand. These days there’s almost never not an event going on (which sort of undermines the whole point of them), but at that time they were rare. DC actually did events more often, averaging an one every couple of years starting with 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. Marvel had only had two line-wide events with their own miniseries before Infinity Gauntlet, 1984’s Secret Wars and 1985’s Secret Wars II.

Adding to my excitement was the fact that I’d already been reading the Silver Surfer book that built up writer Jim Starlin's story of Thanos’s obsession with Death (an actual character in the Marvel Universe) and his quest for the Infinity Gems, so I was excited for the payoff. 

AND, it was being drawn by George Perez.

By 1991, Perez had already established himself as one of the greatest superhero artists ever. The South Bronx native had grown up a comics fan, drawing influence from a range of artists including Curt Swan, Neal Adams, and Barry Windsor Smith. Intriguingly, he also counted his Infinity Gauntlet writer - who was also a talented artist - among his heroes. In a 1982 interview he said, “As far as someone whose style totally changed mine, Jim Starlin." 

Perez broke into the comics business as an assistant to artist Rich Buckler, but it wasn’t long before his talent for inventive, eye-catching page layouts and polished figures landed him gigs on flagship titles Fantastic Four and Avengers. Perez was a fast artist, but in his first stint at Marvel he worked himself into the ground, and destroyed his marriage and his reputation in the process. 

When his contract was up, Marvel let him go. So in 1980 Perez headed for DC, working on Justice League of America as well as a new title with writer Marv Wolfman. It was this second book that would push Perez's career into the stratosphere. His and Wolfman's New Teen Titans - which aged up the original sidekick characters of Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, and Beast Boy; and introduced Raven, Cyborg, and Starfire - was a huge hit.

Perez would work on the title for four years before moving over to Crisis on Infinite Earths. This and Titans cemented Perez as an unparalleled talent when it came to depicting lots of characters and lots of details. His pages were packed, made for the eyes to linger on.

After Crisis, he took on a reboot of Wonder Woman, writing and drawing the title to critical and fan acclaim. That brings him to Infinity Gauntlet. Despite Perez's long history in comics, this was actually the first time I encountered his art (as I detailed in essay #6, I was late to arrive to DC Comics, so I wouldn’t read Crisis or Titans until later). I was gobsmacked. The level of care on each page was astonishing, and I became an instant fan.

*

Infinity Gauntlet's story bears little resemblance to Infinity War and Endgame. Yes, Thanos is central, and so are the Infinity Gems, and so is the infamous population-halving snap. But the character motivations and the plot to foil Thanos are almost completely different.

In the movie, Thanos doesn’t kill for the sake of it. He’s convinced himself that halving the population will allow those who are left to thrive in peace, because they won’t have to compete for resources. In the comic, his motivations are borne of obsession; he performs the act of mass murder in an attempt to win Death’s affection (it doesn’t work). The Thanos of the MCU is a “sociopath with a messiah complex,” as Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo described him (The Wrap). The Thanos of the comics is a nihilist who is constantly thwarted by his own insecurity.

(It should be noted that Jim Starlin created Thanos, so he should know his motivations better than anyone. But it should also be noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean the comics version is better).

In the movie, the heroes use time travel to gather the stones and foil Thanos, but in the comic storyline they try a head-on attack before giving way for the cosmic entities of the Marvel universe and finally Nebula and Adam Warlock.

But there are also commonalities between the two stories, and not just in the broad strokes. Though it’s clear that the MCU writers and directors pick and choose what elements they want to use, they also do a good job of honoring their source material with nods and winks. So the Hulk falling through the roof of Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum is a tribute to the Silver Surfer doing the same in Infinity Gauntlet #1. Both stories featured a valiant-but-failed a tempt to wrest the gauntlet off of Thanos’s hand. In both, Captain America makes an inspiring stand against the mad Titan. Drax, Gamora, and Nebula all have roles. Infinity Gauntlet ends with Thanos living in isolation as a farmer, which also happens in the films.

So the natural next question in this comparison becomes: Which one do I like better?

Infinity Gauntlet was a huge moment in my nascent comic book fandom, but was ultimately a disappointment. Perez worked on the book while also trying to manage a DC event, War of the Gods, and the workload proved too much. He was replaced with Starlin’s Silver Surfer artist, Ron Lim, for the final three issues of Infinity Gauntlet. I liked Lim, but the style shift was jarring, and it coincided with the story spinning somewhat out of control.

I suppose that’s why, ever since, I’ve approached comics crossovers with caution. They so rarely fulfill their promise. Avengers: Endgame, however, hit every right note for me. Go figure.

*

Jim Starlin would spin off a new title – Warlock and the Infinity Watch – and then join Ron Lim for two Infinity Gauntlet sequels: Infinity War (1992) and Infinity Crusade (1993). Starlin has returned to Thanos many times since, and was credited in the MCU films for his creation and development of the character. Perez would so some wandering (most notably doing the Hulk: Future Imperfect miniseries) before doing a triumphant second stint on Avengers, but more on that later.
 

Works Cited:

Greenberger, Robert. “The Ultimate Team Player: A look at the career and art of George Perez.” Comics Scene (vol. 1) #7. January 1982.

Hornshaw, Phil. “’Avengers: Infinity War’ Directors Explain Why Thanos Didn’t Double the Universe’s Resources.” The Wrap. August 1, 2008. https://www.thewrap.com/infinity-war-directors-explain-thanos-double-universe-resources/

McAvennie, Michael. “Running the Infinity Gauntlet.” Comics Scene #19. June 1991.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #7: June 1991

More Heroes for the 1990s




 




















Sleepwalker #1
Writer and Colorist: Bob Budiansky 
Artist: Bret Blevins    

*

After the success of the “Heroes for the 1990’s” initiative in 1990, Marvel repeated it in 1991, introducing seven new ongoing series between March and October. Like the first go-‘round, the slate included a mix of new heroes (Darkhawk, Sleepwalker), revived heroes (Deathlok, Wonder Man, X-Force), a new series for an old favorite (X-Men), and a licensed property (The Toxic Avenger). Like the card-carrying Wild Agent of Marvel I was, I bought every single one of them, even The Toxic Avenger, though it’d be a year or so before I actually saw the movie (on USA’s Friday and Saturday night b-movie trashfest “Up All Night”).

X-Force and X-Men were the big stories of the year, thanks to their massive sales. X-Force #1 became the best-selling comic of all time in August with five million sold, at least until X-Men #1 broke the record two months later, selling an uncanny 8 million, a record that still stands today. But we’ll hear more about that in a few essays.

It’s easy to make these gaudy numbers – and the gaudy gimmicks that drove them; X-Men #1 had six different covers – the main story. But there was another story standing off to the side, one in which Marvel was still taking chances on new characters, even if they were in the mold of their older ones. Even as the revolution went on around them, Darkhawk and Sleepwalker were both very much conceived and executed in the classic merry Marvel manner.

If Darkhawk - the story of a teenage who finds an amulet that allows him to switch places with an android warrior - was a riff on Captain Marvel (both the DC and original Marvel versions), Sleepwalker had the spirit of Steve Ditko’s ’60s work at Marvel. It was a combination of Doctor Strange’s far-out-ness and Amazing Spider-Man’s angst with a dash of the “Marvel Monsters” of the 1970s. Truth be told, I liked Darkhawk more as a kid, but Sleepwalker stands out more now, not only for its peculiarity but also for its creative team.

Sleepwalker was dreamed up by writer/artist/editor Bob Budiansky. Budiansky is a Bronx native who came to Marvel in the late 1970s, starting as an editorial assistant, then becoming  cover artist on the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider series, eventually taking over penciling duties on the last dozen issues of the title. In 1983 he became a full editor, and the following year an unlikely project fell in his lap. Hasbro approached Marvel about making a comic book to go along with a newly-acquired Japanese line of robot toys they were calling Transformers. Budiansky ended up working off of Jim Shooter’s initial treatment, naming the characters, giving them personalities, and writing the comic that introduced the Transformers mythology as we know it.

In the early 1990s Budiansky began to tire of writing Transformers, and returned to an inspiration he’d had since the late 1970s of a “traditional superhero, but with a twist…in this case he was a bug-eyed alien.” (Marvel Age 100) The concept was that the Sleepwalker was one of a race of protectors that dwell in the Mindscape. While protecting film student Rick Sheridan in a dream, he becomes trapped in Rick’s mind. He can emerge into our world when Rick falls asleep, and use his reality warping powers to fight crime and other menaces.

Budiansky's first choice for his artist also happened to have share an alliterative “b” name, Bret Blevins. An Arizona native, Blevins broke into comics in the early 1980s, starting out by doing Marvel Super Special adaptations of some of your favorite childhood films: The Dark Crystal, Krull, and The Last Starfighter. He next co-created the Epic series The Bozz Chronicles with writer David Micheline, and then bounced around on various projects before landing on New Mutants. He had a nice run on the title, until he was cleared off to make way for Rob Liefeld, as discussed in essay #5. Blevins's impeccably drafted, expressive, shadow-heavy work was a throwback to masters like Alex Toth and Joe Kubert. The fact that this was regarded as stale on New Mutants says a lot about how views of comic art were changing in the 1990s. It also shows just how powerful the hunger for something new and different was, to the point that very talented artists were pushed aside for rawer, less experienced ones.

Blevins career was far from over, though. He went on to do an Inhumans graphic novel and other random work until Sleepwalker came along. His art was a perfect fit for the moody nature of the title, especially when he was able to ink his own work.

Budiansky’s stories were very much in the vein of early Amazing Spider-Man issues, introducing a parade of colorful odd new villains such as 8-Ball, the Chain Gang, Cobweb, Lullaby, and Spectra, while at the same time throwing Rick Sheridan's personal life into turmoil because of his superhero secret. Sleepwalker himself was, like Spider-Man, constantly misunderstood and cast as a villain. The title was unique in that it essentially had two interconnected leads who couldn’t communicate save through drawings and answering machine messages (and the occasional dream invasion). 

Like The New Warriors one year earlier, Sleepwalker was a surprise hit, an accomplishment perhaps even more impressive because the character was 100% new.

Blevins stayed with the book until issue 17, only needing to be spelled twice by guest artists – Rick Leonardi and Joe Quesada (who as far as fill-in artists are concerned are not too shabby). He went on to do a brief run on Ghost Rider before jumping over to DC to work on Batman: Shadow of the Bat. He’d exit comics almost completely in 1996. In a 2018 interview he reflected on that decision: “I’ve always loved comics, obviously, but the industry downturn of the mid 90’s seemed like a good reason to try something else, and I was ready for new challenges at the time anyway, I think.” (Newsarama)

He went on to become a storyboard artist for DC’s excellent animated universe on shows such as Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League, winning two Emmys in the process. He’d return to comics sporadically, most notably in 2018 on DC’s Harley Quinn title, and on writer Joe Keatinge’s Image series Stellar.

*

Sleepwalker continued on with California native Kelly Krantz joining as series artist. His work was – like many artists who entered the comics industry in the mid-1990s – highly indebted to Rob Liefeld’s style. And though Blevins left of his own accord, it was an odd echo of his New Mutants departure. In this case, however, it had the opposite effect. Sleepwalker’s sales began to dwindle, and Budiansky was unhappy with the new look of the book. It would be cancelled in 1994, ending with issue 33.*

The end of Sleepwalker also marked the end of Bob Budiansky’s career as a comics writer. He continued on as editor for a couple years and was then a victim of the 1996 Marvel layoffs that foreshadowed its bankruptcy filing. He got a job as an assistant creative director at Scholastic doing graphic design, and has gone on to run the recreation department for his small town in New Jersey, planning Easter egg hunts, holiday celebration, and managing programming for seniors and summer camps. He's a regular at both comics and Transformers conventions, and also does art commissions

*

Sleepwalker has rarely been seen in comics since outside of a four-issue 2018 miniseries tied into the Infinity Wars event, and a humorous one-pager Budiansky wrote and drew for Marvel Comics #1001. Recently, two independent filmmakers released a Sleepwalker fan film. Check out an article and link here.

The book and character stand today as not just objects of nostalgia for "old" fans like myself, but as reminder of the two extremes of the 1990s. There's the overlooked fact that despite the characterization of the era as a time when everything was burned to the ground, the 1990s was still a place for new characters and books that honored the tried-and-true superhero formula. But at the same time, many of the writers and artists responsible for those books - like Budiansky and Blevins - made their last stands in the 1990s, with the industry essentially driving them away.

*Krantz was one of many Liefeld-esque artists who broke into the Big Two but weren’t able to form a lasting career. In fact, save a couple of issues worth of work at independent companies, Sleepwalker is the entirety of Krantz’s comics career. He now makes his living as a tattoo artist.


Works Cited:
“Bob Budiansky Full Career Interview!” Genome Presents. June 1, 2020. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THFZYUirZ3E

“Bret Blevins Returns To Co-Pilot Image’s Stellar With Joe Keatinge” Lan Pitts, Newsarama. May 29, 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20190706023625/https://www.newsarama.com/40112-bret-blevins-returns-to-co-pilot-image-s-stellar-with-joe-keatinge.html

“Sleepwalker” Mike Lackey, Marvel Age #100 (May 1991)

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #6: April 1991

Discovering the Distinguished Competition


Justice Society of America #1
Writer: Len Strazewski
Artist: Rick Burchett
Colorist: Tom Ziuko

*

Though the 1989 Batman movie got me interested in comics, I didn’t actually gravitate toward Batman or DC Comics initially. It was Marvel that first captured my attention and my heart.

In fact, I don’t think I even bought any DC Comics until the January 1991 Robin miniseries, and that was just a fluke in my buying habits. I was a Marvel guy all the way until the summer of 1991,when my dad bought me a box of random comics at a garage sale. Included were Action Comics 553 and 554 by Gil Kane and Marv Wolfman, and the Charlton Blue Beetle by Steve Ditko. These glimpses into other superhero universes made me want more.

It wasn’t long after that I came across issue #5 of the Justice Society of America miniseries at Jewel/Osco. The cover featured Hawkman and the Flash, and it intrigued me. I soon bought up the first four issues and then the subsequent three as they came out. Little did I know at the time that I’d picked the perfect series to introduce myself to the DC Universe, because the Justice Society are a team comprised of the very first DC heroes. The Flash featured in that issue that caught my eye was not the red-suited guy with a mask, but a maskless guy with a metal hat like Mercury. It’s the first DC comic I remember getting really excited about. 

The Justice Society – a teaming of heroes from both DC and All-American Publications, had debuted in 1940, and enjoyed an 11-year run. The team consisted of Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Black Canary, Starman, the Atom, and a host of others. When DC got heavy back into the superhero game in 1956, they reinvented some of these heroes –Atom, Flash, Green Lantern – in new identities and forms similar to the ones we know well today. Others (Batman, Superman) had continued on unchanged, while still others remained in obscurity.

The Justice Society characters made a return in the 1960s as residents of “Earth-2” and began semi-regularly teaming up with the Justice League of America. Their solo adventures began anew in 1976, when DC made the exceedingly rare choice to pick up a title with the same numbering it had left off on in 1951. The new series lasted for a couple of years.

In 1981 Roy Thomas and Rich Buckler (the same team responsible for my first comic book) took the reins and introduced the All-Star Squadron. This book featured the Justice Society’s adventures during World War II, and also involved Quality Comics characters such as the Ray, Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, and Doll Man. Thomas also introduced a modern team – Infinity Inc. – comprised of the children of many of the original Justice Society members. Both series, however, came to a close with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, which effectively erased Earth-2 from continuity. The characters were literally sent into limbo in a one-off special called The Last Days of the Justice Society. A 1988 Secret Origins issue made an attempt to situate their origin in the newly revised DC continuity, so the characters weren’t erased, just shelved.

They probably would have stayed on that shelf if not for Impact Comics. The DC offshoot line based on the Archie Comics Red Circle superheroes was set to launch in 1991 with five books, but some legal red tape held things up. That left the books’ creative teams with a gap wherein they were under contract but wouldn’t be getting paid. To solve this, editors Mike Gold and Brian Augustyn proposed a miniseries that would keep the artists busy until Impact could officially get going. Writer Len Strazewski pitched a Justice Society book set in the 1950s, and they were off to the races.

So the eight-issue miniseries features work by all five artists who were committed to Impact (we’ll hear more about that line of books in another essay soon): Rick Burchett, Grant Miehm, Mike Parobeck, and Tom Artis, with Tom Lyle on covers. Why a Marvel junkie with a thing for Rob Liefeld was drawn to a throwback book starring World War II era superheroes, I still can’t rightly say. But those artists were a big part of it, especially Parobeck. And perhaps it was exactly because the book was so different from everything else I was seeing; the characters were so exotic looking, with costumes that had not changed in any significant way since their inceptions. I couldn’t help but be curious. And when I actually started reading, I found Strazewski’s story to be solid, with snappy dialogue, and some fun twists. 

I wasn’t the only one hooked in, and the miniseries did well enough that DC decided to bring back the Justice Society into modern DC continuity with the 1992 Armageddon: Inferno miniseries. And from there they were given their own title, Justice Society of America, by Strazewski, Parobeck and inker Mike Machlan. The book reintroduced the heroes as a team of sixty-somethings wondering for about their role in a world that has moved on from them. The members dealt with greying and thinning hair, pulled hamstrings, and old enemies out for revenge. Strazewiski cleverly had the characters deal with corporate overreach, colonialism, and apartheid, all modern forms of the fascism they’d battled in their heyday. He also built up the team issue-by-issue, while setting up younger successors for the heroes to mentor and train.


Though the premise was very different from the original 8-issue miniseries, the creative team’s approach was similar, and that made it anachronistic even though it was set in modern times. The combination of Parobeck’s bold and cartoony art with a cast comprised of AARP members was meant the series was 100% out of step with what was popular at the time. Letter-writer Mike Fritsch put it best in issue #5 of the series (December 1992); “This title really contrasts the difference between the original hero team and the latest foil-die-cut-multiple-hologram-trading-card-scratch-and-sniff-disproportional-pinup-brand-X-team.”
 

Flying in the face of what’s popular is admirable, but the big-wigs don't typically like it. Despite decent sales, editor Mike Carlin cancelled Justice Society of America after a criminally short run of 10 issues. Teenage Paul was outraged at this injustice, but it taught me two valuable lessons about being a comic book fan: 1) Don’t get too attached to any particular series, and 2) Quality doesn’t equal sales. Come to think of it, those lessons are applicable to a lot more than comic books. 

But on the positive side, Strazewski’s 18 issues of Justice Society of America made me into a lifelong fan of the team, and it provided and invaluable pathway into the DC Universe.

There’s more to tell about the team of Strazewski and Parobeck, but we’re a handful of essays away from that. The Justice Society, meanwhile, would have to settle for being supporting players in other books – Flash, Green Lantern, Starman, etc. – for a few years before their next chance at a starring role. More on that later, too.