Archive for January 2016

Comic Art Friday: A thousand points of light

January 29, 2016

Let’s get straight to the particulars of today’s featured artwork, officially #114 (of, currently, 127) in my Common Elements commission series, shall we?

Orion_Andromeda_Sharpe

On the left is Orion, one of the key players in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos. On the right, that’s Laurel Gand, better known as Andromeda, of the Legion of Super-Heroes. The artist wielding the pencil is Kevin Sharpe — Kevin has drawn dozens of comics for most of the main publishers, but is probably most familiar for his work on G.I. Joe for Image Comics and Army of Darkness for Dynamite Entertainment.

The more astute among you will have recognized that the “common element” uniting our two mighty heroes is the fact that each is named after a constellation — more specifically, a constellation containing a noteworthy nebula. The Orion Nebula (officially Messier 42) is one of the brighter objects of its kind in the night sky, and is clearly visible to the naked eye as the middle “star” in Orion’s “sword.” The Andromeda Nebula (Messier 31), more accurately referred to as the Andromeda Galaxy, is one of our Milky Way galaxy’s closest neighbors in the universe. (“Close” being relative, when discussing cosmic distances.)

As for our own two superpowered stars…

Orion first appeared in New Gods #1 (February 1971). He’s the son of DC’s ultimate villain Darkseid — coming soon to a movie screen near you — but was raised as the adopted child of Darkseid’s opposite number, Izaya the Highfather, as part of a peacemaking infant-swap. (The Highfather’s son, Scott Free, is in turn raised by Darkseid, eventually rebelling against his foster dad and becoming the heroic Mister Miracle.) Under the Highfather’s tutelage, Orion learns to (mostly) control the darker nature he inherited from his natural forebear and conduct himself in a more noble manner. He is often seen zipping about the cosmos in his Astro-Harness, as illustrated here in a sketch cover drawing, also by Kevin Sharpe.

Orion_Sharpe

To be honest, I was never a huge fan of the Fourth World saga. For me, it quickly devolved into a morass of Kirby’s unchecked worst impulses, with way too much weird and crazy simply for the sake of weird craziness. Kirby was a brilliant artist, a dynamic creator of characters and concepts, and one of the greatest visual storytellers who ever put a pencil to paper, but as a writer… yikes. He desperately needed collaborators to edit and wordsmith his scripts. And no one ever should have let the King compose dialogue. Ever. (This might sound like sacrilege to some, but I’m just keeping it 100%. Your Kirby mileage may vary.)

It’s no accident, then, that New Gods was my least favorite of the Fourth World books, because it was the core of the mythos and as such, the place where Kirby most surrendered to his unfettered imagination and purplest prose. I much preferred the two series that tied more closely into the familiar DC superhero universe — Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (where Kirby first began introducing his Fourth World saga when he moved to DC from Marvel) and Mister Miracle. The fourth book in the line, Forever People, could be fun but was impossible to take seriously — Kirby putting words into the mouths of space hippies read just as badly as that phrase sounds.

Orion, though, like almost every character Kirby ever designed, looks awesome.

Andromeda_Sharpe

Andromeda was something of a Jenny-come-lately to the original Legion of Super-Heroes roster. When Supergirl famously died during Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC decided to replace her in the Legion with a character as similar to Kara Zor-El as possible. Thus, Andromeda — another blonde with an almost identical array of powers — was born. Laurel Gand (as did her Legion predecessor Mon-El) hailed from Daxam, a planet colonized by Kryptonians centuries earlier. Unlike her counterpart from Krypton, Andromeda had a vulnerability to lead, with potentially fatal complications arising from lead exposure.

To my mind, Andromeda epitomizes one of the ongoing weaknesses of DC’s editorial philosophy: namely, cloning its top-line characters over and over again. By the Andromeda came along, DC already had one alternate Supergirl in Power Girl, she of the imposing bosom and keyholed costume. Then again, killing the original Supergirl in the first place was a silly stunt that never should have happened.

But I have to admit — Andromeda, though not designed by Jack Kirby, looks awesome.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Comic Art Friday: Royal Air Force

January 22, 2016

People often ask me, “Where do you come up with all of these ideas for Common Elements commissions?” The truth is that concepts strike me in the most random ways. I’ve literally been driving in the car or watching some non-comic-related program on television when out of the blue comes the thought, “Hey, what if I put [Hero X] and [Heroine Y] together?” Whenever I get one of these ideas, it immediately goes onto the list of Common Elements concepts that I’ve been maintaining for over a decade now, to await its turn to be drawn.

The genesis of today’s featured artwork ties into my other commission theme, Bombshells!, which showcases classic comics heroines (by my arbitrary fiat, a character has to have made her first appearance in or before 1960 to qualify as a Bombshell!) in pinups modeled after vintage aircraft nose art. One day, while brainstorming Bombshells! ideas, it hit me that there was at least one superheroine who shared her code name with a British fighter plane: Spitfire, who first appeared in the 1970s Marvel series The Invaders. Spitfire is too recent a character to use in a Bombshells! commission, but I soon thought of another character who also has a British military aircraft code name: Gauntlet, from the Avengers Initiative storyline of a few years ago.

And just like that, a Common Elements concept is born.

Gauntlet_Spitfire_Bowden

For the benefit of the non-airplane buffs in the audience, here’s a touch of background. The Gauntlet was an open-cockpit biplane used by the Royal Air Force in the 1930s, although a handful were still flying during World War II. The better-known Spitfire came along in the late 1930s, and was an RAF staple well into the 1950s. The Spitfire is notable as the only British fighter whose production run predated, spanned, and continued for years after WWII.

As for our fighter plane namesakes, Spitfire (a.k.a. Lady Jacqueline Falsworth Crichton) gained superhuman speed and healing ability from the combination of a vampire bite and a subsequent blood transfusion from an android — specifically, the original Human Torch. (I know. It sounds crazy. I don’t make this stuff up.) Jacqueline’s father James was the original Union Jack; her brother Brian later took up the mantle. (Writer Roy Thomas had initially planned for Jacqueline to become the second Union Jack, but he and artist Frank Robbins decided that Union Jack’s flag-patterned outfit looked awkward on a female figure. So they created a new identity for Jacqueline, with a simpler costume design.) Spitfire joined the Invaders — a WWII-era superteam led by Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the aforementioned Torch — and a was a key member throughout the series’ 1970s run.

Gauntlet (a.k.a. Joseph Green) turned up following Marvel’s Civil War storyline (coming soon in modified form to a cineplex near you) as a training officer for rookie superheroes. A former Army drill sergeant, he has a massive prosthetic of alien origin permanently attached to his right hand and arm. This robotic appendage provides Green with super-strength and enables him to project a “hand” made of pure energy with powers of its own. (I know. It sounds crazy. I don’t make this stuff up.)

Bringing together our two champions is UK-based comics artist Mike Bowden. I thought it appropriate that a Common Elements starring characters named after British aircraft should be drawn by a British artist. So far as I know, there has never been an RAF plane called the Bowden. But perhaps there should be.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Always be yourself, unless you can be Mary Marvel

January 15, 2016

A couple of years ago, I met a talented Canadian artist named Sanya Anwar at a local comics convention. Sanya created this gorgeous Art Nouveau-inspired portrait of one of my favorite heroines: Isis, star of the 1970s TV series The Secrets of Isis. (I probably just landed on some national security watchlist for typing the name “Isis.” You people need to chill.)

Isis_Anwar

At the time Sanya drew the Isis piece, we talked about her doing a companion piece featuring Mary Marvel, the inspiration for the Isis character. Sanya and I revisited that conversation last spring at Big Wow ComicFest. It took a few months for Sanya to work the project into her hectic schedule, but in the end, this beautiful rendition resulted.

Mary Marvel, pencils and inks by Sanya Anwar

Since I first discovered the Marvel Family characters in the early ’70s, I’ve always found the concept of Mary Marvel intriguing. Unlike her brother, the original Captain Marvel, Mary’s accessing the powers of various mythological beings doesn’t transform her into a different person (or, at least, persona — for decades, comics writers couldn’t decide whether Billy Batson and Captain Marvel were separate entities, or just differently aged versions of the same individual). When Mary says “Shazam!” she doesn’t grow older or muscle up. She’s the same sunny-spirited teenager whether she’s Mary Batson or Mary Marvel. The latter just has more amazing abilities.

Which always raised the question in my mind: If you could be Mary Marvel and still be fully and completely Mary Batson, why would you ever not be Mary Marvel? What would be the reason for changing back into your non-powered self, and spending most of your life that way? If I had the option of being Just Plain Me or Superhuman Me, I would opt for Superhuman Me all the time.

The lesson is: Always be yourself.

Unless you can be Mary Marvel.

Then, always be Mary Marvel. (Or Isis. That works, too.)

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: All my Hexes live in Texas

January 8, 2016

It occurred to me this morning that I didn’t post a single Comic Art Friday in 2015. For a guy who rarely missed a weekly art post for several years, that’s more than a smidgen embarrassing. I will endeavor to do better in 2016. In fact, with today’s post, I already have.

There’s a long and not always cheerful story behind today’s featured artwork, the 127th entry in my Common Elements commission series.

(For the benefit of those joining us for the first time — or old-timers who’ve simply forgotten, because of my slacker posting habits of the past year — Common Elements is a series of commissioned artworks depicting comics characters who are in most cases unrelated, but who share some unifying feature. The “common element” may be obvious — similar names or superpowers, for example. Sometimes, the connection is so obscure that it requires detailed explanation. Ultimately, the point of Common Elements is to showcase characters that might never be seen together anywhere else, for the pure joy of novelty.)

The Scarlet Witch and Jonah Hex, pencils and inks by Pete Woods

I originally planned this matchup of Western antihero Jonah Hex and longtime Avenger Scarlet Witch (whose probability-altering powers have historically been referred to as “hexes”) to be drawn by legendary comics artist Tony DeZuniga, who co-created Jonah Hex with writer John Albano. Tony was a frequent guest at Bay Area comics conventions, where I got to know him and his wife Tina over the years. The last time I saw Tony in person, I’d mentioned the idea to him, and he and I agreed that I would commission him to draw it the next time our paths crossed at a con.

As sad misfortune would have it, that next meeting never occurred. Tony passed away in May 2012 due to complications from a stroke he suffered about a month earlier.

When I heard the news of Tony’s passing, I resolved to give the assignment to Tony’s good friend and fellow artist Ernie Chan, also a regular at our local cons, and a brilliant artist who’d drawn several pieces for me previously. But less than a week after Tony’s death, Ernie also passed. The world had lost two talented creators, and I’d lost a pair of friendly acquaintances.

As for this Common Elements concept, I shelved it, hoping that eventually an artist would come along who would do something truly special with the idea.

Fast forward three and a half years. Pete Woods, an artist whose work I’ve admired since the DC Comics miniseries Amazons Attack in 2007, opened his commission list briefly in late 2015. I immediately thought of the Hex/Wanda pairing, and knew that Pete’s unique style would be perfect for it. Pete must have agreed, because he accepted the project, then proceeded to nail every aspect like a carpenter on amphetamines. All of the creative notions packed into this drawing — from Hex on horseback, to the Witch’s period-styled costume, to the inquisitive reptile observing the scene — came entirely from Pete’s imagination and pen.

The one item that didn’t come from either Pete or myself is the title: “All My Hexes Live in Texas.” Credit for that clever pun goes to my fellow comic art collector Joshua “Doc” McCoy. Well played, sir.

I still wonder what Tony DeZuniga or Ernie Chan would have drawn, given the same two-character assignment. But I’m convinced that both artists — who were always eager to see the fruit of others’ talents (whenever he saw me with my art portfolio wandering Artists’ Alley, Tony’s second question after “How you been?” was always “What did you get?”) — would have admired the amazingly conceived and rendered scene that Pete Woods crafted.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.