Sunday, August 31, 2014

Eighties August 8 part VIII: Most Memorable Moments

By Jef Willemsen (

It's the final entry of the Eighties August 8... What better way to cap off this week + 1 day long trip down memory lane than by listing some of best moments of the decade? The following by no means encapsulates the most important things that happened, but they are among the ones that still resonate today*. Here goes, and thanks for reading!

8) - "Professor Xavier Is A Jerk!" (Uncanny X-Men I#168, April 1983)

Truer words were seldom spoken.

Shortly after the X-Men were believed dead following an outer space mission, professor Charles Xavier assembled a class of, well, new mutants. When the X-Men returned, Charles was overjoyed, but he immediately decided to demote Kitty Pryde to the New Mutants. Xavier felt she was too young to run with the senior and needed to study with her peers. Needless to say, Kitty did not agree.

So, for most of Uncanny X-Men I#168, Kitty tried her best to persuade the professor. Flirting, beating him at chess, throwing titanic temper tantrums... But nothing worked. That is, until she unexpectedly ran into a Sidri warrior in the mansion's subbasement and managed to defeat him. Xavier happened to monitor her thoughts during the fight, which led him to realize that mentally, she was well beyond her years and could stay on with the X-Men.

What makes this moment so memorable isn't so much the fact Xavier acts like an insanely unreasobable prick (this, after all, is the man who faked his own death, put everyone who cared for him through hell and then just came back). More importantly, it showed how the status quo at Xavier's would, ahem, *mutate*  now that there were two groups of mutants running around. And while it does make a bit of sense for Xavier to want a 14 year old training with people her own age, he of all people should know Kitty was well beyond her years.

After all, the X-Men sent her to kill him when he was possessed by a Brood.

7) - Scourge Massacre (Capain America I#319, July 1986)

Who knew even Mark Gruenwald's love for continuity had its limits...

The legendary writer, editor (and for a brief moment penciller) Mark Gruenwald was an avid fan of continuity. He always loved using the little guys others would often overlook, he even made sure no one could forget those also-rans by profiling more than a fair share of them in the Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe. But sometimes, enough is enough...

Allegedly fed up with the fact there were too many villains running around that were either too silly, one note, out of date or otherwise inexcusable... He came up with the Scourge of the Underworld, a mysterious vigilante who only targetted the losers of the supervillain community. First appearing in Iron Man I#194, eventually, Captain America became aware of the Scourge's activities. But various other writers used the Scourge to wipe out bad guys in their own book as well. We lost Bruno Horgan, the original Melter, in Avengers and John Byrne had Scourge take out Basilisk in Fantastic Four. 

Before Captain America was able to stop the Scourge (well, *that* particular Scourge), he'd committed a major massacre at the Bar With No Name, a joint supervillains preferred to hang out at. Firebrand (Gary Gilbert) had called a meeting to discuss the Scourge situation, unaware their bartender was the capekiller himself. Scourge opened fire and the death toll was staggering: Cheetah, Commander Kraken, Cyclone, Foolkiller, Grappler, Hellrazor, Hijacker, Jaguar, Letha, Mind-Wave, Mirage, Rapier, Ringer, Shellshock, Steeplejack, Turner D. Century and the Vamp.

Thank god Gamecock lived to tell the tale, though.

6) - Jarvis Stays On After The Mansion Siege (Avengers I#280, June 1987)

The Mansion Siege has to be one of the Avengers defining moments.

Baron Helmut Zemo assembled a virtual army of supervillains, including the entire Wrecking Crew, Moonstone, Beetle, Screaming Mimi (and other future Thunderbolts). Their goal was simple: crush the Avengers... Their approach was a carefully planned strategy that allowed them to actually invade and take over Avengers Mansion itself. During the assault, the Avengers' butler Edwin Jarvis was captured and brutally beaten by the sadistic Mr. Hyde.

In the end, the Avengers managed to defeat the Masters but Jarvis had sustained severe injuries. The brutal beatings he bravely endured left him with a limp, mostly blind in one eye and with possible brain damage. Avengers I#280 told the tale of how Jaris dealt with the situation, for the first time giving the team's faithful manservant center stage. And oh boy, did he shine.

It's hard to believe the issue wasn't written by Avengers regular Roger Stern. Instead, it was
Bob Harras who wrote this fill in issue, indirectly proving he had what it took to take over the title full time in the early 1990s. Harras had Jarvis reflect on what he'd been through during his time with the Avengers, the many emotional ups and downs of he'd been privy to... As well as finally coming to terms with the fact he'd gotten hurt on the job and there was no promise it wouldn't happen again.

In the end, Jarvis called Tony Stark to tell him that in spite of all the inherent dangers... he was planning to stay on as the team's butler, thus proving he was indeed one of Earth's mightiest.

5) - Armor Wars (Iron Man I#225-232, December 1987 - July 1988)

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds"

Doctor Robert Oppenheimer's words after witnessing the detonation of the first atomic bomb mirror, in an eery way, how Tony Stark must have felt once he realized others had gotten hold of his technology to build weapons armors of their very own. As soon as he learned various allies and enemies were using his inventions for their own, he set out to rectify the matter. Over the course of six months, Tony engaged all the alleged thieves in an event that became known as the first Armor Wars.

The Armor Wars took place well over 25 years ago. However, it remains as relevant today as it was then, perhaps even more so. After all, Stark's desire to ensure his rivals didn't benefit from his work mirrors the way major brands like Apple and Samsung are engaged in legal battles about the fact who ripped off who.

In the end, Tony managed to take down baddies like Beetle and the Controller a peg or two, but his overly zealous determination also brought him into direct conflict with his long time Avengers ally Steve Rogers. Stark didnt think twice about knocking him out in order to achieve his mission, which set up a rift between the two heroes that'd last for years.

4) - Storm accidentally robbed of her powers (Uncanny X-Men I#185, September 1984)

Like most moments that change everything, it was never supposed to happen.

Really, truly... Henry Peter Gyrich was actually aiming for Rogue... But when he fired the mutant power cancelling Neutralizer in the pages of Uncanny X-Men I#185, he accidentally hit Storm, who immediately lost her weather control powers and fell to the ground.

Storm losing her powers was a seminal moment. Not only in the character's development, but also in that of the X-Men as a whole. Ororo had served as the team's leader, her elemental abilities making her the team's de facto powerhouse. Without them, who was she, really? The loss of her mutant gifts came on top of a growing feeling of isolation she'd been experiencing following an extended period off world.

In the long run, the loss of her weather control abilities proved to be essential. It forced the "goddess" to come down from her proverbial moutain top. Forced to cope without them, she finally, painfully came into her own as Ororo Munroe, not Storm. After a brief visit to Africa, she returned to the X-Men again, proving her worth by defeating Cyclops even without her powers and resuming her leadership role once again...with gusto.

Inevitably, her powers were restored and she regained her full combat potential. Still, it was a lesson for all of us: Storm isn't defined by lightning, hail or mists...The woman is far more deadlier than the elements she commands.

3) - Hulk banished off world by Doctor Strange (Incredible Hulk I#300, October 1984)

Why didn't anyone else ever think of this before?

Incredible Hulk I#300 marked the climax of Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema's 2.5 year long running storyline. First Bruce Banner, almost accidentally, achieved his fondest dream: controlling the Hulk. Then, he received a full presidential pardon, allowing him to start a new life before it all went to pot.

Following the Secret Wars, Hulk returned with Banner slowly losing control of the emerald behemoth. Eventually, it was revealed that Dr. Strange's old enemy Nightmare was responsible for this gradual degradation. He figured Hulk would be the perfect pawn in his ongoing fight with Earth's sorceror supreme. Hulk eventually lost all aspects of his humanity, reverting to the inhuman, brutal beast that threatened to raze New York at the start of this issue.

Now mindless, Hulk (in)directly fought all of New York's heroes. Power Man & Iron Fist were quickly dismissed, as was the Human Torch (the only FF member available). The Avengers lasted a little longer, but proved equally unable of dealing with the green goliath. In the end, Doctor Strange made a decision that, in retrospect, could have been made ages ago: simply banish the Hulk and allow him to find a new home in one of the myriad alternate dimensions.

In the end, he returned... But the Hulk's adventures on the Crossroads of Infinity as he made his way back were undeniably defining moments for both the mythos and the monster.

2) - Invisible Girl loses her second child (Fantastic Four I#267, June 1984)

John Byrne doesn't really care for children.

When he took over Fantastic Four, John Byrne initially proposed to kill off Franklin Richards. If for nothing else, it would make for some interesting stories. Editorial decided against it, but Byrne didn't hear a 'no', merely a challenge to get creative. Sure, Marvel maybe said Franklin couldn't die... But nobody mentioned anything about a second child.

So, the Invisible Girl found herself pregnant again after a prolonged sojourn into the Negative Zone. A story that, incidentally, ended with Franklin severly injured at the hands of Annihulus... Proving Byrne enjoys both having his cake ánd eating it. Franklin eventually made a full recovery, but Sue's pregnancy was complicated, thanks in no small part because she conceived in a universe with warped laws of nature. Reed might have been able to save her and the child, but just when her problems started, the FF members were forced to participate in the first Secret Wars.

By the time he returned, Sue and his offspring's fate were pretty much sealed. The various, violent cosmic radiation surges proved too much for Reed and other experts like Walter Langkowski, Michael Morbius, Bruce Banner and even Doctor Octopus to deal with. Despite their best efforts, Susan Richards-Storm's second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The tragedy was a gut wreching moment in and of itself. But, it also proved to be a watershed moment in the evolution of the Invisible Girl.

Losing a child set her on the way to becoming noticed as a woman... Invisible or not.

1) - Ms. Marvel chews out the Avengers (Avengers Annual I#10, August 1982)

"You screwed up, Avengers."

Chris Claremont wrote Avengers Annual I#10, quite rightly considered by some to be the death of the Silver Age. Though, at first, it was little more than a rebuttal of the travesty that took place in Avengers I#200. In this issue, Ms. Marvel gave birth to a child called Marcus, one she mysteriously conceived and carried to term within days... And then the baby matured into adulthood within a day or two as well, announcing he was Ms. Marvel's outerdimensional lover, who manipulated her into birthing him into this plane of reality.

As if that wasn't enough, Markus insisted Carol accompanied him back to Limbo. The Avengers cheerfully saw them off, acting all goofy like Golden Age Superman extras would in those weird stories where people got mutated or turned evil thanks to the kryptonite color of the week.

But not this time. Carol eventually broke free, came back to Earth a broken, violated woman only to lose her powers and memories to Rogue. Eventually, she confronted the Avengers about the way they they treated her. The blessed myth that superheroes can do no wrong really and truly got debunked when Carol took her former teammates to task for the cavalier way they'd allowed Markus to take advantage of her. Dozens of scholars have debated the Ms. Marvel controversy. But at the end of the day: the Avengers did nothing to prevent one of her own from becoming an outerdimensional love slave.

Carol's rape at the start of the decade, no matter how crude, served as a clarion call. Heroes were by no means infallible, and sometimes their stumbling led to the best stories.

*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!

1981 - Anatomy of a cover - Doctor Strange #48

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Eighties August 8 part VII: Best Deaths Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

In the second to last instalment of Eighties August 8, we're not fearing the reaper on this one because it's all about death in the Marvel Universe during the 1980s. Nowadays, the mortal coil has become somewhat of a revolving door... But as this entry shows, the 80s had a few deaths that still had some impact.  

8) - Dark Phoenix ("Died": Uncanny X-Men I#137, September 1980)

Y'know, there's a reason why Dark Phoenix ended up on the bottom of the list.

Yes, back in September of 1980, her death at the climax of the Dark Phoenix saga was shocking, poignant and disturbing. One of the founding members of the X-Men choosing to die so she wouldn't be responsible for any more deaths, what a way to go. But... She didn't, not really.

Dark Phoenix's death lost most of its impact and relevance several years later when Jean showed up alive and well, having snoozed in a cocoon that the Avengers discovered in time for her to help launch X-Factor. The Phoenix that perished on the Moon turned out to the actual cosmic force that had taken on Jean's form in order to study humanity... Essentially becoming a precursor of the Beyonder, albeit with a better perm.

If Jean had remained dead, she'd undoubtedly have made it to the top three. For now, let's say her chances at immortality died when she came back to life.

7) - Jean DeWolff (Died: Spectacular Spider-Man I#107, October 1985)

Speaking of Jeans who died in the 80s...

Captain Jean DeWolf was one of the most popular Spider-Man supporting characters, with her signature, 1930s inspired look and automobile. DeWolf made close to 70 appearances in comics, and her tough as nails attitude made her a force to be reckoned with, even if she did harbor some romantic feelings towards the wallcrawler.

Jean was killed off by Spectacular Spider-Man writer Peter David, who decided her death would be the perfect way to start off the Sin-Eater arc. Having Jean be the villain's first victim made quite a bit of sense, as the Sin-Eater eventually turned out to be her jealous ex-lover Stan Carter.

Some might claim that Jean's death was unnecessary and merely written in for cheap shock value. While there is some truth to that (death sells, after all), it's also a sobering reminder that being on the force is a dangerous job, especially if you're dealing with superhumans. It also wasn't the first time Spider-Man was unable to save a police official, in the 70s he failed to prevent Dr. Octopus from dropping a chimney on captain Stacy.

Peter Parker may not be Jewish, but he's carrying around enough guilt his name might as well be Schlomo Rosenberg.

6) -  Tom Thumb (Died: Squadron Supreme I#9, May 1986)

A man's stature is by no means determined by his height...

Of all the various Squadron Supreme members, Tom Thumb undoubtedly looked the silliest... And that's saying something when the Whizzer and Cap'n Hawk are on the same team. It wasn't until he took off his costume in the latter part of the Squadron Supreme limited series, that the dimunitive inventive genius got a chance to shine by creating technologies the Squadron needed to help make the world a better place.

Tom had cancer, however. He decided not to tell his teammates, partly because he didn't want their pity, partly because he wanted to continue to work as long as he could. He had tried to cure the disease, only to fail repeatedly. However, he then learned the team's hated enemy Scarlet Centurion (hailing from the 40th century) possessed the panacea potion, a serum that healed all known ailments.

Staring death in the face and with every other option exhausted, Thumb compromised all his principles. He travelled to the future and stole a sample of the potion. However, when he analyzed it in his lab, the wonder drug turned out to be little more than vitamin water. Tom realized that the human immune system had become so evolved  by the 40th century, it needed little more. Disappointed, Thumb returned what he'd stolen, resigned to the fact he was fated to die. His death was never seen, only the captions in the final panel told of his fate, perhaps even more powerful than any acual depiction of his demise.

Thumb died broken and ashamed of himself and the cruel irony of it all: Scarlet Centurion knew all this beforehand and did nothing to stop him.

5) - Sadie Bass (Died: Marvel Team Up I#119, July 1982)

Writer J.M. DeMatteis knows how to play the guitar ánd tug at his readers' heartstrings...

In Marvel Team-Up I#119, the Defender Gargoyle (Isaac Christians) prevents an old woman from getting mugged in Central Park. The grateful, elderly lady is Sadie Bass, who invites her savior to her modest New York appartment. There, they have a heart to heart about growing older and life's inevitable ending. These scenes are especially poignant because Isaac was already in his late 70s by the time he ended up in the immortal form of the Gargoyle.

Sadie reveals she feels her end is fast approaching, a fact she is more than content with. She's led a good life and she's ready to let go. However, her daughter Beatrice feels differently and doesn't want to lose her mother. A fact she rather vehemently points out when she comes to visit and finds her mother having tea with "a monster". In an attempt to bridge the gap between mother and daughter, Gargoyle takes both of them for a flying tour of the city, showing them the sacred beauty of life in its many splendored forms. Beatrice and her mother reconcile and, after returning home, Sadie goes to bed for the final time.

Yours truly is a sucker for these kinds of  stories. I cry at card tricks, but seeing Sadie explain that she's ready... That she had a good life, experienced all she wanted, as well as quite a few things she never asked for is a guaranteed tearjerker. If only because one can only hope to leave this world in half as peaceful and loving a way.

Schmaltzy? You bet...  but like the best chicken soup, sometimes that's exactly what the soul requires.

4) - Gretl Anders (Died: Invincible Iron Man I#182, May 1984)

"In the morning... Tony Stark will be sober. Or dead."

Sometimes, it isn't so much what a character does that matters, its the impact he or she has on the world. Meet Gretl Anders, a severely alcoholic vagrant who befriended Tony Stark during his first, lengthy bout with alcoholism in the early 80s. Gretl and Tony hit it off, they shared the same "hobby" after all. Anders turned out to be pregnant, but that didn't stop her binge drinking ways...

She eventually went into labor in Invincible Iron Man I#182, which was a bit of poor timing on Gretl's part. New York City was about to be hit by a catastrophic snowstorm, guaranteeing certain death for anyone out wandering the streets... Such as winos like Tony and Gretl. With no one to care for them but each other, while the world turned to white, Gretl went into labor, refusing a drink because she didn't want her child to come into the world drunk. Huddled together in an alcove, Gretl gave birth to her son even as the snowstorm raged on throughout the night.

Stark used his own body shelter the newborn, keeping him safe until morning, when they were discovered by the police who rushed them to the nearest hospital. There, Gretl soon succumbed, the result of years of alcohol abuse and prolonged exposure to the elements, leaving her son an orphan. This tragedy caused Tony Stark to hit bottom and made him determined to beat the bottle.

As the sun came up, Tony Stark decided to become sober and reclaim all he had lost to the demon drink. So, even in death, Gretl symbolically birthed two new lives.

3) - Jocasta (Died: Marvel Two In One I#93 & Avengers Annual I#17) 

Can a robot really die?

Well, Jocasta did it twice in the 1980s alone! Originally constructed by Ultron in the late 1970s to become his bride, she soon rebelled against her creator and became an Avengers associate (a decision in no small part influenced by the fact her personality was a copy of the Wasp's). Unlike the Vision, Jocasta never really received the respect she was due, even though she was a formidable force, proving a pivotal presence during many of the team's adventures (Taskmaster and Yellow Claw are still sore from the beating she gave them). Yet, despite her power and pleasant, cooperative personality she was never awarded full membership, which eventually drove her away from the team.

Striking out on her own, Jocasta eventually was taken over by Ultron, who forced her to rebuild him in Marvel Two-In-One  I#92. When Thing and Machineman (who'd fallen for her) proved unable to stop the mad robot, Jocasta sacrificed her own existence to ensure his defeat. Machineman spent most of the decade looking for ways to rebuild his complicatedly constructed companion, even joining the Super-Adaptoid's killer robot team Heavy Metal in hopes of getting his aid in rebuilding Jocasta.

In the end, she was put back together by the High Evolutionary in the final chapter of 1988's crossover Evolutionary War. She happily joined with the Avengers to oppose the Evolutionary's plans, but was forced to give up her life once again on a suicide mission to save all of humanity.

2) - The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man (Died: Amazing Spider-Man I#248, January 1984)

Talk about an emotional sucker punch...

Hard to imagine, but "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" was originally published as a back up story. Usually, back ups are mostly forgettable features like "Aunt May's recipe for poundcake", "Meet the Daily Bugle staff" or "Secrets of Peter Parker's apartment". Not so much in Amazing Spider-Man I#248, which told the story of Spider-Man meeting Tim Harrison, a young boy who happened to be an avid fan of the arachnid hero.

Spidey visits with young Tim, showing off his acrobatics and indulging him by wanting to see the collection of newspaper clippings he's collected over the years. Just as he's about to leave, Spider-Man does the unthinkable: he takes off his mask and shows his face to Tim who promises his favorite hero he will keep his secret forever. As Spider-Man swings away, it's revealed Harrison has incurable leukemia and only weeks left to live.

The story by Roger Stern and Ron Frenz is considered one of the ten best Spider-Man tales ever told and quite rightly so. Stern said in an interview he wanted to emulate comics legend Will Eisner, which is why he used the various newspaper clippings as a framing device. But to me, it reads like a cross between a Twilight Zone episode and those 1950s monster comics with the inevitable, gut wrenching twist at the end.

Solid stuff, even without Rod Serling.

1) - Captain Mar-vell (Died: Marvel Graphic Novel I#1, April 1982)

Marvel launched its line of graphic novels with 1982's The Death Of Captain Marvel, written and drawn by Jim Starlin who had taken the character in the late 70s and made him his own, with a critically acclaimed run. In issue 34 of his own solo title, Captain Marvel tried to stop the supervillain Nitro from stealing cannisters of deadly nerve gas, only to be exposed to it and contracting cancer.

Mar-vell's nega-bands helped slow down the disease, but by 1982 his fate was sealed. The hero tried as best he could to cope with the  inevitable, recording his last will and testament, making peace with those he might have wronged and trying to console his loved ones, including his ladyfriend Elysius. As his time grew short, most of Earth's heroes made the trek to the moon of Titan, home of the Eternals. One by one, they came to pay their respects, even the Skrull empire honored him by awarding the dying Kree one of their highest military medals... and then, the inevitable happened.

The Death Of Captain Marvel was Marvel's first, real and candid examination of (the way towards) death. The project proved to be an exceptionally personal one for Starlin, whose own father was dying of cancer during the making of this graphic novel. Perhaps it is this unwanted, terrible first hand experience that lends so much credibility to the deathbed scenes, that feel raw, real and nakedly human in spite of all the capes.

To Marvel's credit, they've allowed the death of Captain Mar-vell to stick, for the most part. He invariably gets resurrected as either a zombie, a ghost or part of the Legion of the Unliving, but those moments are few and blessedly short lived (pun intended). During Secret Invasion, a Skrull briefly believed he was the real C.M. and there has been more than one hero who took his codename, including his own son. Despite all that, the legacy of the one, true Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree remains unblemished.

*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!

1982 - Dreadstar ad

From the Comics Journal #76.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eighties August 8 part VI: Best Artists Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

It's the sixth installment of Eighties August 8. After listing the best writers of the 1980s, how could we not do the same for the eight best pencillers and inkers of the decade*. Bear in mind, I'm a writer not an art critic. So, the following won't include any knowledgeable comments on technique, style and form. Basically, it's a long winded way of saying "Oh look, pretty pictures!"

8) - Sal Buscema (Incredible Hulk, Rom, Spider-Man et al)

If you were to pick any title Marvel published in the late 60s, 70s, 80s and even through most of the 90s, chances are pretty decent at least one issue was produced by Sal Buscema (Brooklyn, 1936). His bibliography is basically a list of everything Marvel ever put out. Among his 1980s highlights are lengthy runs on Rom (issues 1 through 58, minus one fill in) and Incredible Hulk. Sal was the jolly green giant's principle artist for an astonishing 16 years, starting in 1970, both pencilling and inking the title until 1986. And oh yeah, he missed 6 issues along the way. Damn slacker.

After leaving Hulk alone in 1986, Sal soon moved to Spectacular Spider-Man, again pulling double duty as penciller and inker from January 1988's #134 all the way to September 1996's #238. He left right in the middle of the Clone Saga which, if nothing else, proves the man has impeccable timing.

Sal's work was instinctly recognizable, clear and he could draw freakishly looking monsters just as easily as he could portray tender character moments.  Yet, he never became quite as popular as his older brother, the late great John Buscema. Still, Sal's dedication to his craft and chosen profession remain both awe inspiring and humbling.

7) - Paul Ryan (Squadron Supreme, D.P.7, Quasar)

It's hard to make simple look easy.

One of the complaints most often heard about Paul Ryan's art style, is that it looks too simple, too comic-y... If you can believe such a ridiculous statement. Ryan's clear, crisp and well defined style made him a shoe-in for the medium and allowed him to work continuously from the mid-1980s on.

He first partnered with writer Mark Gruenwald on the final issues of the 1985-1986 Squadron Supreme limited series. The two of them obviously hit it off, seeing as they paired off to do the thoroughly enjoyable D.P.7, part of the short lived New Universe line envisioned by editor in chief Jim Shooter to celebrate Marvel's 25th anniversary in 1986.

Ryan and Gruenwald produced 32 issues of D.P.7 together and also collaborated on the  1989 Squadron Supreme graphic novel Death Of A Universe. He once again partnered with Gru to help launch the Quasar solo series later that same year. He followed that up with a lengthy run on Fantastic Four that lasted two issues shy of Onslaught in the Summer of 1996.

Yours truly grew up on Paul Ryan's Fantastic Four, seeing his work always evokes memories of those seemingly endless Summer days when all you were supposed to do was read comics.

6) - John Romita Jr. (Iron Man, Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men)

It's tough to make it in the family business.

Though some might say that in the case of John Romita Junior, it was pretty much inevitable. His parents after all, were John and Victoria Romita. His father was Marvel's art director for an extended period of time. But before that, he was already a legendary artist in his own right, taking over Amazing Spider-Man after Steve Ditko quit. John's mother Virginia serving as the Bullpen's traffic manager, making sure all the proverbial trains ran on time and the books made it to press well before the deadline.

John Junior showed he had what it took, when he dreamed up the Prowler in 1969, at the tender age of 13. His first regular assignment as a penciler was Invincible Iron Man in the late 70s, where he helped create lasting characters such as Bethany Cabe and Justin Hammer. In the early 80s, he joined Denny O'Neill  on 'his dad's book', Amazing Spider-Man. During this particular run, he gave life to Marvel mainstays like Madame Webb, Hydro-Man and Hobgoblin. He also made his mark with a three year stint (1983-1986) on Uncanny X-Men, where he was essential in creating Forge. Moving to Daredevil with writerAnn Nocenti in the late 80s, he was partly responsible for Typhoid Mary. As the decade came to a close, John Romita Junior had quite clearly stepped out of his father's shadow and come into his own.

As for the picture, well... Back when Jim Shooter was still writing the Bullpen Bulletins himself, he struck upon the notion of showcasing Marvel's good looking creative staff in a segment he called "Marvel Hunk Of The Month?". John "two tickets to the gunshow, please" Romita Jr. got roped into participating as the first and as it turned out only hunk... Oh yeah, he allegedly hated the idea of being paraded like a piece of meat. Can't say I blame him.

5) - Art Adams (Longshot, Uncanny X-Men)

There's something about the art of Art Adams that just makes you want to smile. Maybe that's because his first name already tells you what he does? Nevertheless, he has somehow mastered the ability to deliver work that is intricately detailed without looking overly complicated or crowded. Yet, his chosen style is rather labor intensive, making it impossible for Adams to hold down a monthly title for more than a brief fill in arc at best.

Yet, that might be part of his lasting appeal. A little really goes a long way, and one can only imagine the sheer joy and excitement it generated back in the day when one discovered a new Art Adams comic on the newsstand. Perhaps his most noteable work for Marvel was the 1986 Longshot limited series with Ann Nocenti, that allowed him to show off his prowess.

He also worked with Chris Claremont on the X-Men, most notably the Asgardian Wars storyline. But what really speaks to Adams' lasting appeal is the cover he did for the premiere issue of Classic X-Men. Art never pencilled those X-Men, yet he managed to nail iconic versions of those characters in that one single image.

Almost makes you feel sad he couldn't have been a bit faster...

4) - Mike Mignola (Alpha Flight, Doctor Strange Rocket Raccoon)

The creator of such popular, enduring franchises like Hellboy and B.P.R.D. enjoyed a brief but undeniably unforgettable tenure at Marvel during the 1980s. He took over Alpha Flight with Bill Mantlo after John Byrne had agreed to switch titles, moving to Mantlo's Incredible Hulk. Mignola's art was immediately noticed.

He also joined with Bill Mantlo to do the limited series no one ever expected: Rocket Raccoon... To do a four issue limited series on a throwaway joke character like a raccoon with a laser gun showed how devil-may-care Marvel was during the early 80s.

But Mignola's crowning achievement has to be the 1989 graphic novel Doctor Strange: Triumph And Torment. Bringing to life one of Roger Stern's most inspired stories, Mignola helped tell the tale of Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom banding together in an attempt to save the soul of Doom's mother Cynthia, a gypsy witch trapped in Mephisto's realm. It perfectly suited Mignola's sensibilities as an artist and, in retrospect, provided a sneak peak into the kind of hell he'd later draw... Oh, boy!

3) - Barry Windsor Smith (Machineman, Uncanny X-Men)

It'd be unfair to call Windsor-Smith an icon of the 1980s.

Well, he is... But the British artist has been a valued member of the comics scene since the late 1960s, his one of a kind style makes every issue he does a special event. In the 1980s, he only sporadically worked for Marvel, most notably when he did the 1984 limited series Machineman, a character created by Jack Kirby but fully fleshed out thanks in no small part to Smith's artistic vision.

However, what makes Smith so memorable to me, are his contributions to both Invincible  Iron Man and Uncanny X-Men. Windsor-Smith drew Invincible Iron Man I#236, the issue immediately following the first Armor Wars that had the remorseful, guilt ridden Tony Stark catching up on a little sleep, experiencing horrific nightmares all the way. Stark found himself chased by a monstrous version of his armor, which made him question his identity and his actions. Powerful stuff.

It is his work with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men that earns him the bronze in this particular list, though. The Life/Death saga, originally intended to be a trilogy, stands the test of time and is a powerful examination of Storm and the ways and customs of the worlds she moves in. Windsor-Smith brought out the best in Claremont as a writer, inspiring him to transcend the medium, delivering powerful prose that defined the character.

When Windsor-Smith is behind the board, these pages aren't necessarily funny anymore.

2) - Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra Assassin, Fantastic Four, Moon Knight, New Mutants)

Ah, to live in the mind of Sienkiewicz.

It's almost impossible... no, it *is* impossible to describe the artistry of Bill Sienkiewicz. So, I won't even attempt for fear of disgracing both myself and the legacy of his work. Suffice it to say, the definition of art is the work's innate ability to invoke something in those who witness it.
Art appreciation is mostly subjective, of course... But it's safe to say a Sienkiewicz piece will stirs something in you.

The 1980s proved to be the defining decade of Bill's career. He finally came into his own, evolving from trying to emulate Neal Adams during his early days on Fantastic Four. By 1983, he started some interesting experiments into abstraction. Unjustly, some early detractors called his work "ugly" and "unsuited for the medium", others wondered why he kept knocking over the ink well while he was working.

And yes, while his one of a kind, abstract style worked for experimental books like Moon Knight, when he moved to the straight laced, bright 'n happy New Mutants in 1985, one can imagine it did raise some eyebrows. But do yourself a favor and check out Sienkiewicz's work on the book. It is literally out of  this world, from the menace of the Demon Bear to the way he portrayed the madness inside the autistic teenager Legion's mind, it's a wonder to behold.

And oh yeah, he also did a little Elektra oneshot called Assassin. Wonder whatever became of that?

1) - John Byrne (Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Sensational She-Hulk, Uncanny X-Men) 

Is there an all round artist who did more for the medium in the 1980s than John Lyndley Byrne?

Writer, penciller, inker... Byrne could do it all, and he did for both Marvel and DC. It's not hard to recognize a John Byrne comic. Even though he continuously kept trying to evolve his style, it was always unmistakably a Byrne book, which ensured a comforting level of quality.

I could waste space and time regurgitating Byrne's bio, but let's assume you're familiar with most of it or you wouldn't be here. John Byrne singlehandedly helped restore Fantastic Four to its former glory, writing and drawing the book for five consecutive years. The book showcased what he brought to all the titles he took on: a love for established continuity, combined with a sense of tradition and tempered with adventurous, sometimes even slightly sadistic tendencies. A Byrne comic might look bright, cheerful and happy, but the dark and creepy always lurked right around the corner. Drama was never far away. Just ask the Invisible Woman.

In an interview, Byrne once rather eloquently explained his mantra when it came to doing a Marvel comic: "Do what Stan and Jack did... and try and do it better if you can."

Amen to that.

0) - Jack Kirby (August 28th, 1917 - February 6, 1994)

A bit of a cheat, considering Jack Kirby didn't do any actual work for Marvel in the 1980s.
But really.... How can anyone do a retrospective like this without acknowledging the fact this man is responsible for creating the foundation of the Marvel Universe? Without 'King Kirby', there wouldn't be a Marvel 1980s to celebrate, so including him is only fitting.

If only because his mind birthed so many of the characters we still love to this very day... his birthday. Gone, but never forgotten... Thanks for helping our childhood seem magical, Jack!

*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!

1984 - Conan the Barbarian calendar by Bill Sienkiewicz

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Eighties August 8 part V: Best Writers Of The 1980s

By Jef Willemsen (

Ask any actor: "it starts with the writing". If it ain't on the page it ain't erm... Well, you get the idea. So, on the fifth day of Eighties August 8 it's all about the writers that made the 1980s a decade to remember. And really, eight entries barely scratches the surface... Ever so sorry, Walt, Steve and John!*

8) - Bill Mantlo (Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk, Micronauts, Rom)

Bill Mantlo was one of the most prolific writers of the late 1970s (he co-created Rocket Raccoon!). The fact he could write like the wind ensured his popularity well into the 1980s. Editors who needed a script done yesterday would regularly call on Mantlo, who'd get the job done overnight. Mantlo gradually graduated from being a pinch hitting editor to become a full fledged writer. He first made a mark for himself on Marvel's line of licensed books Micronauts and Rom.

To his credit, Bill never treated either property as "just a way to sell toys". He poured his heart and soul into whatever he wrote, creating tons of new characters for Micronauts and taking what would be another bland, bargain basement toy and turning it into Rom, premiere Space Knight, hero of Galador and vanquisher of the Dire Wraiths. Mantlo's infectious enthusiasm for the medium and the characters under his care were undeniable. Together with Sal Buscema, he was responsible for a staggering 68 issue run on Incredible Hulk (#245 through 313) which might arguably be one of the jolly green giant's most creative periods. He only left the book to take over Alpha Flight, a book he also brought his unique brand of storytelling to.

Of course, most us know of the terrible accident Bill was in back in 1992. While out rollerblading, he was hit by a car and suffered extensive head injuries that eventually left a brilliant man a ghost of his former self, stuck in a permanent care facility. That having said, the man was not without his detractors. Check out what Jim Shooter had to say on his blog about the way Mantlo would sometimes get his ideas.

7) - Ann Nocenti (Daredevil, Longshot, Spider-Woman, Web Of Spider-Man)  

Ann "Annie" Nocenti started out as one of Marvel's assistant editors in the early 1980s, taking over for Louise Simonson in the X-offices. Eventually, she tried her hand at writing. First, by taking on the bi-monthly Spider-Woman series in 1982 after Chris Claremont left. Immediately, Nocenti's penchant for the dark, strange and macabre became obvious. While Claremont's Jessica Drew engaged in semi-straightforward superheroics, Nocenti returned Jessica to her creepy roots, facing down frustrated, sometimes even downright weird villains like Daddy Longlegs, Gypsy Moth and others. In the end, she even killed Jessica Drew in #50.

Nocenti continued on as a writer, with memorable runs on Web Of Spider-Man that saw Peter Parker ending up in an insane asylum bankrolled by the Kingpin. Ann's true strength as a writer shone through, as she gave voice to the mental malady of the ward's patients. Somehow, she was able to zoom in on that undeniable spark of madness that defines the human condition, the one sideward step that can make the sanest one of us mad as a hatter... A good Nocenti forces you to take a good, long look at the darker aspects of ourselves. Ann knows where you live.

Perhaps the best possible way to mark her talent is the fact that in spite of all the doom and psychological gloom, Nocenti came up with *the* most happy go lucky character of the 1980s: Longshot.

6) - Frank Miller (Daredevil, Wolverine LS I#1)

Well, what can one say about Frank Miller that hasn't already been spelled out, regurgitated and blogged about again? Probably very little indeed. Suffice it to say Miller's early 80s contributions are varied and lasting. The man took Daredevil, a book even Stan Lee's trademark hyperbole couldn't convincingly call a bestseller and elevated it to a singular form of art.

Success in comics relies on the marriage between words and pictures, but Miller provided both during his turn at the helm of Daredevil. From the film noir style streetsof Hell's Kitchen, to the damp tunnels underneath the city where the Sewer King reigned, and from the courtroom to the Kingpin of crime's higher echelons of power... All of it sprang from the creative mind of this one man.

If nothing else, we have to thank Frank Miller for the creation of Elektra Nachios and Stick... Not to mention 1982's four issue Wolverine limited series, which Miller and Claremont all but mapped out when they just happened to be stuck in traffic together heading for a convention.

5) - Peter David (Incredible Hulk, Amazing/Web Of Spider-Man)

Jack of all trades, master of more than most of  'em...

Peter David started work at Marvel in the 80s as part of its sales division, before making the cut as a (freelance) writer. His talents are undeniable and his range is nothing short of breathtaking. He can do broad comedy, is capable of deft wordplay and provides gut wrenching, emotional drama as fast as you can name a deadline... And if you pay him enough, he'll mix all three of em together.

Best known in the 1980s for his lengthy run on Incredible Hulk, which pretty much lasted until a year shy of the century mark... David also provided a number of Spider-Man stories that were uniquely his own. Who else but Peter David could have come up with Amazing Spider-Man I#267's "The Commuter Cometh" which saw Spidey chasing a villain to the suburbs, only to find there wasn't too much to web sling from?

David to this day remains the total package, providing pathos, fun and excitement within 22 pages of colored funny pages. Who could ask for anything more?

4) - Mark Gruenwald (Captain America, Official Handbooks, Squadron Supreme, Quasar)

By the time Mark Gruenwald died of an undiagnosed heart condition in August of 1996, he had already made an indelible mark on the medium he loved so much, both as and a writer.

If "Gru" is to remembered for one thing, it was his devotion and love for continuity, which made him a stickler for all that had been established during his time as an editor, but also sparked the idea that in 1983 became the popular Official Handbook To The Marvel Universe series, which in great (some might say inane) detail outlined both the history and powers of the various characters running around the Marvel Universe.

As a writer, he helmed the groundbreaking 1985-1986 limited series Squadron Supreme that for the first time applied real world conventions to the superhuman lifestyle. Actions had consequences and no one escaped them. He also wrote memorable runs on the New Universe title D.P.7 and Quasar, but his singular writing credit has to be his tenure on Captain America, a book he took under his wing only a few months before it got rebooted in 1996's Heroes Reborn. Through it all, Gruenwald showed that continuity isn't some obstacle you have to clear, but rather an opportunity to enrich and ennoble whatever idea you might have.

3) - J.M. DeMatteis (Captain America, Defenders, Spider-Man)

Unless it's 1987 and you're the Justice League, chances are you won't be having too jolly a time when J.M. DeMatteis is your writer.

There's very little "BWAH-HA-HA!" funny about most of DeMatteis' work for Marvel in the 1980s. Starting out as a writer on Defenders, DeMatteis figured it might be fun to have the kooky team face the demon cabal called the Six Fingered Hand. He followed that up with a run on Captain America, which was symbolized by a deep rooted fascination with the psychological aspect of the heroic condition.

DeMatteis created Vermin during his run on Cap, a character he used to maximum effect during the brief, but legendary Kraven's Last Hunt storyline. A deeply atmospheric psychological thriller that showed just how intelligent, philosophic and artistic the funny pages could truly be.

2) - Chris Claremont (New Mutants, Spider-Woman, Uncanny X-Men)

The danger of lists like these is getting lost in the obvious... Yet, there's no mistaking and no denying Chris Claremont's contributions to Marvel all through the decade. He was already writing and co-plotting Uncanny X-Men with John Byrne when the 1980s started, guided by skilled editors like Jim Salicrup, Roger Stern and Louise Jones (the later Mrs. Walter Simonson, depicted on the right in the snapshot above). He continued as main X-scribe throughout the decade, finally quitting the book in 1991 after an astonishing and unequalled 16 year run.

During the 1980s, the X-Men became the X-Men we know today. And that is mostly thanks to Chris Claremont tapping away at his word processor. He married soap opera with superheroics, drafting intricately detailed storylines for most of the main characers, helped in no small part by artists like Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., Mark Silvestri and Jim Lee who were all giants of the industry themselves.

He also helmed the X-pansion of the X-Men, turning the one little mutant book that could into a prosperous multi title franchise. Starting with New Mutants in 1982, he went on to write the first Wolverine limited series that inevitably led to an ongoing series... And, with Alan Davis, he also spearheaded the Britain based branch Excalibur. Chris Claremont may have his faults as a writer, but with the proper guidance and editorial support, he was an 80s powerhouse.

1) - Roger Stern (Avengers, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man)

... Is there anything Roger Stern can't improve?

Initially starting out as an editor, Stern brought a fan's eagle eye for detail to the work. And even as a writer, he actively incorporated continuity to inspire his current works. He did so on Doctor Strange, where he teamed with Paul Smith among others to mark a memorable run. Over on Spider-Man, he penned numerous classic adventures, proving for instance that yes, one *could* stop the Juggernaut (provided there was enough wet cement around, that is).

But Stern's magnum opus has to be his run on Avengers. Starting with January 1983's #227, Stern wrote the book for exactly five years, leaving with February 1988's #288 (he only missed #280, penned by future Avengers chronicler Bob Harras). Stern's Avengers are a showcase in how a teambook should work and evolve. Its membership flowing organically from adventure to adventure, while making sure the nature of the action was determined by the individual characters' personalities and the way they'd interact with one another. Stern had plans for the book leading up to #300, which according to him would resolve the death of Iron Fist, possibly even resulting in to him and his former partner Luke Cage becoming Avengers themselves well before Brian Michael Bendis came up with the idea to make Fist and Cage part of Earth's mightiest.

A few years back, Marvel published X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor Forever, all alternate reality series that allowed the original creators to continue whatever story they had in mind before they were booted out... I'd love for Roger Stern to continue his original 80s Avengers run. But then again, he already co-wrote a series called Avengers Forever which was amazing. But hey, what'd you expect? He's Roger Stern.
*Naturally, these picks are solely based on my own, anything but unbiased preferences. Think I'm wrong or an absolute idjit for leaving out your particular fave? By all means, join the conversation!


Related Posts with Thumbnails