Archive for the ‘Getting Racial Up In This Piece’ category

Comic Art Friday: Between rock and a hard place

July 6, 2018

In my previous Comic Art Friday post about this year’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, I noted that artist Ryan Sook had taken ill during the show and was unable to start the Common Elements commission that he and I had discussed. I also mentioned that I hoped to approach Ryan with the same request at a future convention.

As luck would have it, Ryan was in attendance at San Francisco Comic Con (which is now being staged in Oakland, while retaining the previous name — even though “Golden State Comic Con” is not only available, but comes with reflected cachet) in June. He immediately recalled the project we had talked about previously, and quickly set to work creating it.

You can see for yourself that the end result was well worth the wait.

Tesla Strong and Valda the Iron Maiden, pencils and inks by Ryan Sook

While I always enjoy seeing favorite heroes appear in Common Elements scenarios, some of my favorite pieces in the series involve less prominent characters. Here, Ryan Sook brings together Tesla Strong, the daughter of Alan Moore’s science hero Tom Strong, and Valda the Iron Maiden, the companion of Arak, Son of Thunder.

Okay, so, a little background may help.

A pastiche of pre-superhero pulp characters such as Doc Savage and Craig Kennedy, Tom Strong grew up on the island of Attabar Teru, where he was raised to be the embodiment of human physical and mental perfection. Tom and his wife Dhalua, princess of Attabar Teru, have a daughter, Tesla, named for the famed inventor. Thanks to their partaking of the root of the mysterious Goloka plant, Tom and his family age extremely slowly. Tesla, although in her 60s during the time period in which most of the Tom Strong stories are set, still possesses the appearance and attitudes of a teenager. (Similarly, Tom and Dhalua are both well over a century old, but look as though they’re forty-something.) In addition to participating in a number of her father’s adventures, Tesla also starred in her own one-shot book, The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.

Tesla Strong, pencils, inks, and markers by comics artist Phil Noto

Valda the Iron Maiden was a knight in the service of Charlemagne (and may also have been his daughter) before meeting the Native American hero Arak. Together, they set off on a series of fantastical adventures. Valda and Arak constantly ran afoul of sorcerers and their minions as they battled their way across medieval Europe. Written by Roy Thomas (who was instrumental in bringing Conan to comics) and drawn by Ernie Colon and later by Tony DeZuniga, Arak, Son of Thunder managed to avoid most of the embarrassing tropes assigned to fictional Native American characters, while offering a unique spin on the sword-and-sorcery genre. If you like that sort of thing, Arak is likely to be the sort of thing you like. Check out some back issues in your local comic shop’s discount bin.

Arak and Valda, pencils and inks by Tony DeZuniga

If you’re puzzling over the common element between these two stalwart heroines, both share their names — parts of their names, anyway — with hard rock bands: Tesla and Iron Maiden. I’ve never seen Iron Maiden perform live (they’re not my cup of tea, really), but I’ve experienced Tesla a couple of times, most recently six years ago when they opened for Scorpions. You can read my review of that concert, if you’re inclined.


One of the many qualities I appreciate in Ryan Sook’s art is the deftness with which he conveys so much with a few perfectly placed lines. In today’s featured piece, I’m especially pleased with the treatment that Ryan gave Tesla’s hair, and the way her features delicately but clearly denote her biracial heritage. Too often, comic artists draw women of color in exactly the same manner that they draw Caucasian female characters. How many depictions of, say, Storm (to cite one frequently egregious example) have you seen where, if you were looking only at the pencil and ink linework, you’d never know that she’s of African descent?

(Then again, how many comic artists are guilty of drawing nearly all their female characters, regardless of ethnicity, with the exact same facial features? You know who you are.)

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Uncaged in Vegas

June 10, 2016

If you know me well at all, then you know this: I loves me some Las Vegas.

Which might seem a trifle odd if you do indeed know me, because then you also know that I’m not much of a gambler (I enjoy playing poker and blackjack, but I enjoy them as games, not as vehicles for fiscal risk-taking) and I’m definitely not a partier (in any sense of the word), while Vegas is more or less the universal nexus for both activities. But I am a huge fan of over-the-top glitz and kitsch, particularly when it comes to decor and architecture (we should discuss my googie obsession sometime), and Vegas is the universal nexus for all of that as well.

It’s also one of the greatest people-observing venues on the planet. Every time I go to Las Vegas, I see something I’ve never seen before and would never have thought I’d see. That’s not always a good thing, but it’s usually interesting.

Interesting also is this Vegas-themed Common Elements commission by veteran comics artist Larry Stroman, who has illustrated such series as Marvel’s Alien Legion and X-Men.

Luke Cage, Power Man and Ghost Rider, pencils and inks by Larry Stroman

The idea for a Sin City setting for this piece came from Larry’s art representative, Jerry Livengood at Serendipity Art Sales. Jerry’s suggestion made perfect sense, given that the connection between our heroes, Luke Cage and Ghost Rider, is the actor Nicolas Cage, who famously chose his professional surname in honor of the comics’ Power Man, and also portrayed a version of Ghost Rider in two (execrable, in this critic’s opinion) films. Cage also starred in a pair of movies with “Vegas” in their titles: the cult comedy Honeymoon in Vegas (fondly remembered for its sequence involving skydiving Elvis Presley impersonators) and Leaving Las Vegas, the 1995 drama for which Cage won the Best Actor Oscar. (My fingers feel all weird typing “Cage” and “Best Actor Oscar” in the same sentence. But you can look it up.)

Cage and Ghost Rider each makes his second Common Elements appearance here. I’m a little bit surprised, frankly, to see that Cage hasn’t shown up in the series more often, given that he was a favorite of mine during my comics-reading youth. In fact, I can vividly recall the first time I saw him, in the summer of 1972. My family had stopped in the midst of a cross-country journey — we had just returned from two years in Greece, and were on our way to California — to visit relatives in Kokomo, Indiana. On a trip to the grocery store, I paused — as was my wont — to check out the spinner rack where the comic books resided. And there, resplendent in his open-chested yellow shirt and chain-link belt, was the man himself, on the cover of Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1. I had never seen a black superhero with his own self-titled comic before. (Marvel was still a year away from installing the Black Panther as lead feature in Jungle Action, which even then was not quite the same thing. Because… Jungle Action? Seriously?)

These days, Luke Cage has burst out into the cultural mainstream, courtesy of his co-starring role in Marvel’s hit Netflix series, Jessica Jones. Played by actor Mike Colter, Cage made a powerful impression as Jessica’s off-and-on love interest and fellow crimebuster. Colter will again assume the role in Cage’s upcoming eponymous series this fall, as well as 2017’s The Defenders, which will band together all of Marvel’s Netflix stars — Cage, Jessica, Daredevil, and the yet-to-be-seen Iron Fist.

I don’t know whether there’s ever been a comics storyline in which Cage took on Bright Light City. But if there hasn’t, doggone it, someone needs to write that.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday. Viva Las Vegas!

Comic Art Friday: The Jackie Robinson of comics

April 15, 2016

Allow me to begin today’s festivities by wishing you a happy Jackie Robinson Day.

In the event that you’re not a baseball aficionado — in which case, I might think somewhat less of you, but we can still be friends — I’ll explain that April 15 marks the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, becoming the game’s first black player since baseball banned participation by African Americans in the late 1880s. The integration of the national pastime led not only to revolutionary change in the sporting world, but in society as a whole. No less a civil rights champion than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. credited baseball’s black pioneers with “making my job easy” by demonstrating that people of color could work successfully alongside their white counterparts, and even excel, when provided opportunity.

Variant cover for Black Panther #1 (2016 series), original art by Ryan Sook

It seems appropriate, then, to celebrate Jackie Robinson’s historic accomplishment with an artwork featuring the Black Panther, whose advent in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) represented to mainstream comics what Robinson’s arrival did to baseball. It’s Ryan Sook’s variant cover for Black Panther #1, the first issue of the new Marvel series that hit the stands last week. I acquired the original black-and-white ink art from Ryan last month at Silicon Valley Comic Con. I don’t usually have much interest in buying published covers or pages — my collection largely consists of commissioned pieces, as regular readers can attest — but I couldn’t pass up the chance to own this amazing cover. Thanks, Ryan! (You can see the published version, in full color, below.)

These are good days to be a Black Panther fan, which I’ve been since he began appearing regularly in The Avengers in 1968. Not only are we getting a fresh run of Panther stories in the comics — with scripts by award-winning author and social commentator Ta-Nehesi Coates, and art by the incredible Brian Stelfreeze — but T’Challa is also poised to make his big-screen debut next month in Captain America: Civil War. Portraying the Panther is actor Chadwick Boseman, who coincidentally also played Jackie Robinson in the film 42. Boseman will continue the role in a Black Panther solo film scheduled for release in July 2018. You’d best believe I’ll be among the first in line to see that one.

Black Panther #1 (2016 series), Ryan Sook variant cover

It’s worth mentioning that while the Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics, he wasn’t the first character of African descent to star in his own title. In December 1965, Dell Comics — best known for its licensed comics based on popular TV shows — published Lobo, a Western adventure featuring an African American gunfighter as its titular protagonist. The series, created by writer D.J. Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico, lasted only two issues. Not until Luke Cage, Hero For Hire arrived in June 1972 would a black superhero headline his own book. (The Black Panther took over the lead feature in Marvel’s Jungle Action comic beginning in July 1973. He moved to his own eponymous series in January 1977.)

I still remember the first time I stood in front of the spinner rack at the local supermarket and saw the Black Panther on the cover of a comic book. My younger self could scarcely have envisioned the day when the Panther would stand at the brink of multimedia superstardom, as he does today.

As I said earlier… good days indeed, for us T’Challa fans.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: The universal me

September 6, 2013

The Thing and Sabra, pencils and inks by comics artist Rich Buckler

L’shana tovah and Happy New Year to all of my Jewish friends! (I will presume that you know who you are.) May the year 5774 bring you and everyone you love much good, and none ill.

In celebration of Rosh Hashanah, today’s Comic Art Friday features artworks starring the four most prominent superheroes of the Hebrew persuasion. At the top of this post, you’ll encounter Ben “The Thing” Grimm and Ruth “Sabra” Bat-Seraph, drawn by longtime Marvel Comics stalwart Rich Buckler. Further down, you’ll see Denny “The Spirit” Colt and Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde, rendered by the artist known as Briz (a.k.a. Brian Douglas Ahern).

Someone asked me several years ago why I always post messages to Facebook and Twitter wishing folks well on Jewish holidays, given that I’m not Jewish. The best answer I can come up with is found in the lyrics of one of my favorite popular songs from the 1990s, Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”:

Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?”
And I said, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”

The point being, here’s a Jewish musician singing Christian gospel music in a blues club… and why not?

The Spirit and Shadowcat, pencils and inks by Brian Douglas Ahern ("Briz")

Which is the frame of reference from which I come. I’m not Jewish, but I have a lot of friends who are — in fact, I’m sure that I probably have friends who are Jewish whose religion/heritage is unknown to me — so why would I not wish them well when they’re celebrating? It may not be my holiday, but it is theirs, and they’re my friends and I want them to be happy. That doesn’t seem all that difficult to understand — at least, not to me.

Incidentally, the same principle applies to my friends who identify as some denominational brand of Christian. I’m a Christian, but I don’t celebrate religious holidays as part of my faith practice. That doesn’t mean I can’t wish my friends whose religious practice does include holidays like Christmas and Easter much happiness as they celebrate. (And yes, I do celebrate Christmas — and, to a lesser degree, Easter — in a secular manner. I just don’t acknowledge December 25 as the “birthday” of Jesus, or attach any religious significance to the date.)

Although I don’t always apply this principle perfectly — mostly because it’s a lot of work to keep track of who might be celebrating what this week, and I’m sure I miss somebody’s Festivus Maximus or whatever — but I do apply it as universally as is practical. I tell my ethnically Asian friends “Gong Hei Fat Choi” at the Chinese New Year, even though I’m not ethnically Asian. I wish my female friends well on International Women’s Day and Women’s Equality Day, even though I’m demonstrably not a woman. I salute my friends who identify as LGBT during Pride Week, even though I’m pretty much a 0 on the Kinsey scale.

And why not? It doesn’t have to be my holiday for me to want you to enjoy it if it’s yours.

I believe a key reason why we have so much division among people — both generally, and in American culture specifically — is our tendency to separate ourselves from those we perceive as “different” or “other.” Now, there’s great value in finding and bonding with people with whom we share commonalities. I treasure the bonds I’ve made with folks whose beliefs or vocation or interests or hobbies mirror my own. I think it’s vital, however, to also connect with people who differ from me, so that I don’t end up living in a bland, homogenous world.

I’m glad that, even though I’m a nondenominational Christian, I have friends who identify with other varieties of Christian practice, and friends who are Jewish, and Buddhist, and Muslim, and Wiccan, and atheist. (And yes, I really do have friends who fit each of those labels, and more besides.) I’m glad that, even though I’m genetically biracial and identify primarily as African-American, I have friends who reflect every shade in the melanin spectrum, from inky to pasty and all of the various browns and pinks and goldens in between. I’m glad that even though I test out as more or less left of center politically, I have friends who range from left-wing socialist/anarchist pinko to right-wing reactionary whacko (and I use those terms advisedly). And I’m glad that even though, as previously noted, I’m unrepentantly hetero and monogamous, I have friends who are openly gay and lesbian and bi and trans and poly (and, I imagine, others who aren’t out to me).

I’m glad why? Because I love them all, and I learn from them all. And because my world would be less rich and glorious without them all.

And by “them,” I mean “you.”

So, yes. L’shana tovah to my Jewish friends today. And happy whatever your thing is, when your thing comes around. I’ll try to remember. (If I forget, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It just means I forgot. Or didn’t know. I’ll try to do better.)

And that’s your Rosh Hashanah Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

August 30, 2013

This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Thinking about that historic event put me in mind of a classic song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Written in 1954 by jazz pianist Billy Taylor, the song was first recorded by Taylor in November 1963, just three months after Dr. King’s speech. Although dozens of artists have covered it since then — including a version by British pop singer Sharlene Hector that appeared in a Coca-Cola commercial a few years back — the best-known rendition of “I Wish I Knew” is the 1967 recording by the legendary Nina Simone.

As I sit here with Ms. Simone’s magnificent, inimitable voice resounding through my headphones, kindly take a moment to read and reflect on these lyrics, composed by Taylor and songwriting partner Dick Dallas.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.
I wish I could break all the chains holding me.
I wish I could say all the things that I should say —
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear, for the whole round world to hear.

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart —
Remove all the bars that keep us apart.
I wish you could know what it means to be me.
Then you’d see and agree that everyone should be free.

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give.
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live.
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do —
Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew.

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky —
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly!
Oh, I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
And I’d sing ’cause I’d know how it feels to be free.

Like Dr. King — and like Billy Taylor, and Nina Simone — I long for the day when every person on earth can truly be free… free to be themselves, free to enjoy the wonders and blessings of life, free from hunger and want and pain and fear, free to be loved and accepted and embraced for their own individual uniqueness without reservation or qualification.

I don’t know that that dream will be fulfilled in my lifetime, or The Daughter’s lifetime, or even in this old round world’s lifetime.

But it sure would be sweet, wouldn’t it?

Free Spirit and Mister Miracle, pencils by comics artist Geof Isherwood

The Common Elements entry pictured above is entitled “Breaking Free,” mostly because it features Mister Miracle (whose real name is Scott Free) and Free Spirit, who was Captain America’s sidekick for a brief time in the mid-1990s. (Her real name is Cathy Webster, in case you’re keeping track.) Artist Geof Isherwood masterfully expresses the character’s feelings of liberation and joy in this gorgeous drawing. Every time I look at it, I feel just a little bit more as though I might know what it’s like to be free. That makes me smile.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: The brother from another mother

February 8, 2013

In the nascent days of my Common Elements commission theme — before I had any clue it would take on a life of its own, spawning well over 100 commissions to date — the connections between the featured characters were often simple and rather obvious. (Sometimes they still are.) And yet, even in those early concepts, my subconscious frequently bubbled up a more subtle subtext.

That’s certainly true in Common Elements #3, which I commissioned on New Year’s Day 2005. Artist Jeffrey Moy — probably best known for his work on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes — served up this pinup-style piece pairing Luke Cage, Power Man with Karen Starr, Power Girl.

Power Girl and Power Man, pencil art by Jeffrey Moy

The superficial common element between Luke and Karen is pretty clear — they both have the word “Power” in their fighting identities. (Cage long ago abandoned the “Power Man” handle — as well as the flashy outfit — and now simply goes by his own name.) The pair, however, share another commonality, in that they represent caricatures of masculinity (Cage with the open shirt displaying his bulging musculature — a shirt which had the unusual knack of getting shredded off his torso in practically every issue) and femininity (artist Wally Wood famously drew Power Girl’s bust increasingly larger over a several-issue run, until an editor finally took notice and ordered him to quit). Granted, most superheroes — male or female — can be viewed as hypersexualized gender stereotypes, but Cage and Power Girl were created with those stereotypes in mind more flagrantly than others.

None of this has anything to do with the reason why this Common Elements piece marks a milestone in my collecting career. It’s important because it’s the first tangible evidence of my friendship with fellow collector Damon Owens.

After all these years, I don’t recall exactly how Damon and I began corresponding. (Damon probably does, and I’m sure he’ll correct any errant reportage that follows.) I think he might have sent me a note about my Bob McLeod Black Panther commission when I posted it to my Comic Art Fans gallery. Whatever the impetus, it became immediately clear that the two of us shared much in common. (There’s that Common Elements thing again.) Our casual correspondence evolved into a virtual friendship (we’ve never met in person; Damon lives in suburban Houston, while I’m in San Francisco) that persists to this day.

Without question, part of the connection between Damon and me is that we are both African American. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but I can tell you from a long lifetime of experience that black folks (and racial minorities of all shades, for that matter) have historically been underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy fandom in general, and in comic book fandom — okay, let’s call it geekdom — in particular. Thankfully, that’s changing — I see a lot more faces from a lot more races at comics conventions these days than I did in the 1970s, when I would often be the only person of color I encountered at a Star Trek or science fiction con. (Not that I encountered myself. You know what I mean.) But there’s still an element of “hey! another one of us!” when I run into someone of my background who’s into comics; someone who understands firsthand some of my frustrations with the mainstream comics industry’s embarrassing and often downright offensive depictions of black characters (or its failure to depict such characters at all), as well as its corresponding ill-treatment of many talented African American comics artists and writers.

Damon also shares my predilection for theme commissions, though he was in the game long before I was. His collection still contains many incredible pieces that, when I look at them, make me want to pitch all of my portfolios into the nearest Dumpster. (I lie down with a cool compress on my forehead until the temptation subsides.) Damon’s signature theme features The Brotherhood, an Avengers- or Justice League-style assemblage of legendary black superheroes from across the comics industry. He’s gotten some of the top talent in comics to draw scenarios starring these characters, and the results inspire in me both awe and envy.

From the beginning of our friendship, Damon has proven an invaluable resource for artist recommendations. It was Damon who tipped me to Jeff Moy’s availability for commissions, resulting in the piece shown above. This would be the first, but hardly the last, time that my interaction with an artist resulted from an introduction by Damon. In fact, as I’ve been composing this post, I’ve received two emails from an artist who’s working on my latest Common Elements addition — an artist to whom I was referred by the redoubtable Mr. Owens.

Last evening, I attended a screening of the documentary film White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books, at the Museum of the African Diaspora here in San Francisco. Following the screening, the filmmaker, Dr. Jonathan Gayles of Georgia State University in Atlanta, joined us via Skype for a discussion about the film and the issues contained therein. While I didn’t agree with every point made in the film — you know me; do I ever agree 100% with anyone about anything? — I found it a fascinating and enlightening (if occasionally frustrating) conversation. I especially appreciated Gayles’s interviews with the late Dwayne McDuffie, a veteran comics writer who is even better remembered as the story editor and producer of the popular Justice League animated series, as well as such figures as comics historian Bill Foster and writer/producer Reginald Hudlin.

Many of the documentary’s participants related accounts that mirrored my own childhood experiences, in which finding superheroes who looked like ourselves proved challenging. Among my most vivid memories as a young comics reader is the day I found the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire on a supermarket rack in Kokomo, Indiana, and for the first time saw an African American hero on the cover of a comic with his name in the title. I remember equally well the series of early-1970s issues of Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther, and the run of Captain America and the Falcon — the latter being Marvel’s very first African American hero (the Panther, who preceded the Falcon by a few years, was African, but not American) — during that same time period. These comics and characters weren’t perfect — in those days, their adventures were being scripted almost entirely by writers of the Caucasian persuasion, whose attempts at “black” dialogue often sank to ludicrous depths — but they were steps in a fresh new direction. By the late ’70s, Storm was a major character in X-Men, long-running supporting character Bill Foster (no relation to the comics historian) had taken up the mantle of Goliath, and even the ultraconservative DC had introduced John Stewart (a.k.a. “the black Green Lantern”) and Black Lightning. Again, it wasn’t a lot, but it was something.

Diversity remains a problem in comics, not just for black fans, but for Latino and Asian readers as well. The list of prominent non-Caucasian superheroes remains a short one, and the list of such characters that aren’t stereotypical in some way is shorter yet. (One of my favorite recent additions to the superhero pantheon is DC’s Mister Terrific, the rare black comics hero whose race is almost entirely incidental to the nature of his presentation.) And that’s not even considering the depiction of female characters, or gay characters of either gender, in mainstream comics. The industry still has a long way to go toward realistic, genuinely human portrayals of characters who aren’t white males (or, as in the case of Superman, space aliens who conveniently happen to look like Caucasian human males). As a wise person once observed, the wheels of progress grind slowly. But grind they must.

I look forward to the day when all comics readers — people of every ethnicity, gender, background, and orientation — can open a comic book (or view a digital comic, as the future of the industry lies in that direction) and see heroes and heroines with whom they can fully identify, and in whom they can see the materialization of their own fantasy selves. Won’t that be awesome?

After all, our most precious Common Element is our humanity.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Birth of a notion

January 18, 2013

I didn’t set out to be a theme commission guy.

In fact, at the beginning of my art collecting journey, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a commission theme. Much less did I aspire to have one.

But nearly a decade down the road, my reputation in the insular ranks of comic art collectors is firmly cemented. I’m the Common Elements Guy. And, to a lesser extent, the Bombshells! Guy. Or, to that significant segment of collectors who disdain commissioned art (and those who collect it) in favor of published pages, one of “those guys.” I’m among a tiny minority within the ranks whose collection is defined by commissions focused on one or more unifying themes.

And it all started with this drawing.

Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew) and Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter), pencils by Michael Dooney

On December 1, 2004 (I don’t recall the date from memory, but I keep records of this sort of thing), I commissioned the above piece from artist Michael Dooney, who’s done a boatload of work for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Mike had recently done a pair of drawings for me — pinups of Ms. Marvel and Saturn Girl — and I was madly in love with his style. (I still am. I’ve commissioned Mike more times than any other pencil artist.) For my third Dooney commission, I decided to ask for a depiction of Spider-Woman — more specifically, the original, who wore a red-and-yellow costume and whose real name was Jessica Drew. (That’s her at the top of the picture.)

Jessica came into being in the late 1970s, when Marvel went through a frenzied burst of creating distaff versions of many of their established heroes. Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk evolved from that same gender-equity soup. Marvel’s idea was to lock up trademarks on all of the variations, so that the Distinguished Competition didn’t steal their thunder by coming out with characters using those names. (The two companies had squabbled over Marvel’s creation of Wonder Man when DC already had Wonder Woman, and DC’s release of Power Girl not long after Marvel debuted Power Man.) I always thought Spider-Woman was an interesting heroine, and figured Dooney would do something visually appealing with her.

The exact thought process is now lost to the mists of history, but at some point before I told Mike what character he was drawing, I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have both Spider-Women together?” Because, you see, Marvel also had a second Spider-Woman, who came along in the mid-’80s after the first Spider-Woman’s brief blaze of glory had fizzled out. (Jessica was killed off after a 50-issue run in her own title, and although resurrected shortly afterward, was pretty effectively out of the spotlight.) Spider-Woman II’s debut coincided with Spider-Man’s much-publicized switch from his familiar red-and-blue Spandex to an eye-catching black-and-white ensemble (which eventually became a character in itself, the supervillain Venom). The second Spider-Woman’s garb matched the Web-Slinger’s snazzy new togs, which made for a handy promotional gimmick. (Fortunately, her costume was merely a costume, not a symbiotic alien creature in disguise.) Anyway, I thought the contrast between the two Spider-Women’s uniforms and hair — Jessica has black tresses, while Spider-Woman II (Julia Carpenter) is a redhead — would make for a striking image.

At first, Dooney resisted the idea. “I don’t usually do two-character commissions,” he told me via email. Whatever I said in response, however, must have been persuasive — I’m sure that no offer of a firstborn child was involved — because in the end, Mike agreed to draw the two Spider-Women. (If I remember correctly, Mike surrendered to my pleading by saying, “Well, it’s the holidays.”) I had the pencil drawing in hand less than three weeks later. The art was finished in ink by Joe Rubinstein in 2005, as you can see below.

The Spider-Women (Jessica Drew and Julia Carpenter), pencils by Michael Dooney, inks by Joe Rubinstein

When I saw what Mike had done with Jessica and Julia, the proverbial light bulb flashed on in my head. Wouldn’t it be cool to have several pieces pairing characters that are somehow related, but yet are distinct from each other? I immediately started brainstorming. As the idea took shape, I quickly got away from the Spider-Woman template — essentially, two iterations of the same basic character concept, created by the same publisher (even though Jessica and Julia’s powers are quite different, they’re both Spider-Woman) —  and honed in more specifically on what became the Common Elements theme: characters, usually unconnected to each other in continuity (unlike the two Spider-Women), but who share some trivial point of intersection, whether a similarity in name, costuming, or superpowers, or something more obscure.

From this humble origin grew the legend.

Michael Dooney’s “Spider-Women” launched my signature theme. It’s a bit ironic that this piece should be designated as “Common Elements #1,” given that its subject doesn’t precisely fit the now-cast-in-concrete definition of a Common Elements commission. But it’s okay, I think, for the concept to evolve somewhat away from its starting point. That doesn’t change the fact that, had it not been for this artwork, I might never have come up with the theme that has so thoroughly defined me as a collector.

Which brings me to the underlying message of Common Elements. Much of the beauty of life is the balance between contrast and connection. In Eastern philosophical tradition, this balance is typified by the yin-yang symbol — contrasting elements that together form a whole. It’s negative and positive, masculine and feminine, ebony and ivory — living together in perfect harmony. Common Elements is all about finding linkage where no linkage exists, and making connections in unexpected and unorthodox ways, so that things that would not ordinarily appear together come together to create beauty that would be incomplete without one or the other.

I wasn’t thinking of this consciously when I hit on the idea of Common Elements, but I believe this is part of why this theme resonates with me on such a visceral level:

I am a biracial individual. Although my adoptive parents were both African-American, and I thus was raised in a culturally black home environment (whatever that suggests), my biological parents were of different ethnicities. My genetic mother was of European descent; my genetic father, of African descent. As odd as it may sound to people of my daughter’s generation, at the time I was conceived it was illegal in most parts of this country for my biological parents to marry. I have no idea what brought my progenitors together — everything I know about them comes from a single typewritten paragraph of general description about each — but this I do know: Had they not found their way to one another, despite their differences and the then-prevailing environment hostile to those differences — I would not exist. And yet, the fact of my existence proves that, different though they were, my birth parents shared a common biology. Both their differences and their commonalities make me, me — at least, on a physical level.

When I commission a new Common Elements artwork, I’m bringing together artists and characters that, in most cases, have never been united before. I’m defining a connection between heroes and/or heroines who have, in most cases, never been connected before. I’m envisioning something that no one else has seen, and finding a means of bringing it to reality.

I think that’s kind of cool.

In a certain way, that’s kind of like who I am. Which in itself is kind of cool, too.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

No Justice for the Maestro

February 22, 2011

I could hardly be more shocked and stunned than I was earlier today, when I read the news of the sudden death of Dwayne McDuffie.

Dwayne McDuffie leads an animation panel, WonderCon 2008

If the name is unfamiliar to you, then I’ll assume that you’re not a fan of either comic books or animation, or if you are, you don’t pay much attention to the names in the credits of either. McDuffie was a prolific writer and editor of comics who became an equally prolific writer, story editor, and producer of animation, primarily for television.

In the former realm, McDuffie created one of the most unique series in the history of comics: Damage Control, which spotlighted the exploits of a company that cleaned up cities after superhero fights. He also co-founded Milestone Media, an entire comics line that focused on bringing greater diversity to the medium, both on the page and behind the scenes. From Milestone’s publications came Static, the young electricity-wielding hero who later went on to star in the long-running and popular animated TV series, Static Shock.

McDuffie’s contributions to animation didn’t end with Static Shock. He served as story editor and producer on the Justice League franchise, as well as on the various iterations of Ben 10. He recently wrote the script for Warner/DC’s latest direct-to-DVD project, All-Star Superman, which debuted in stores — ironically enough — today.

As successful as he became in animation, McDuffie never completely abandoned printed comics. A few years ago, he wrote an outstanding miniseries for Marvel entitled Beyond!, and a well-regarded run on Fantastic Four. More recently, he breathed fresh life into DC’s tentpole series, Justice League of America.

Unlike many creators, McDuffie maintained a close connection to the readers and viewers who consumed his product. His personal website hosted a thriving online discussion forum, in which McDuffie himself (nicknamed by his fans “The Maestro”) actively participated. Never shy of expressing his opinions — and he had strong opinions about everything — McDuffie in correspondence was much like the characters whose adventures he wrote: witty, thoughtful, and more than a little tough. He gave no quarter, but he had a deft way of disagreeing vehemently with opponents without resorting to ad hominem attacks.

I had the privilege of meeting McDuffie briefly at WonderCon in 2008, following a panel featuring himself and several other top animation writers. (I took the above photo during that panel.) Although I didn’t muster the gumption to mention it to him in person, it was one of my career goals as a voice actor to snag a role in one of the series McDuffie wrote. As recently as a week ago, I’ve participated in workshops where McDuffie scripts served as the fodder for honing my acting chops. I deeply regret that I will never have the opportunity to work with him professionally.

McDuffie spoke and wrote much about the uphill struggle of being an African-American creator in a mainstream comics industry often frustratingly closed to diverse talents and storylines. His founding of Milestone Media represented his best effort at giving other people of color the opportunities that he, like few other creators of his background, had been afforded, and expanding the palette of characters about whom great comics tales could be spun. And yet, McDuffie would have been the first to correct anyone who referred to him as a “great black comics writer” — he was just a darned great writer, period.

A darned great writer, gone far too soon.

Dwayne McDuffie leaves behind his wife, his mother, a monumental legacy of work, and a numberless legion of colleagues and fans who appreciated his character as much as his creative genius. He was a singular talent in two discrete media, and successful in both.

He was just 49 years old — almost exactly two months younger than I. His birthday was yesterday.

Rest in peace, Maestro.

Burn this!

August 16, 2010

I’m not a huge fan of holidays. (Well, except for International Talk Like a Pirate Day. But that goes without saying.)

Burn a Confederate Flag Day, however, sounds like a celebration I could get behind.

After all, racist whackos have been burning things — like, say, crosses — for decades. Turnabout is fair play.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should go so far as to burn racist whackos. That would be taking things a little far. Then again, if you wanted to throw a photo of your favorite racist whacko (there are so many to choose from these days — Limbaugh? Beck? Dr. Laura? Mad Mel Gibson? — you many need multiples) on the pyre as you’re toasting your rebel banner on September 12, that would be all right with me.

Just be sure to clean up the mess afterward. Don’t forget, Talk Like a Pirate Day is only a week later. You don’t want random ashes lying around on the big day.

Comic Art Friday: Tony, Tony, Tony

January 22, 2010

I’ve always been as much a student of comic book history as I am a connoisseur of comics themselves. Indeed, given the state of modern comics, I get far more enjoyment from reading about the great comics and creators of times past than from the often execrable product being churned out today.

(Don’t get me wrong: There has always been more chaff than wheat in comics. Although that’s pretty much true in any creative field. To quote Sturgeon’s Law — named for legendary science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who’s credited with coining it — 90 percent of everything is crap.)

1000 Comic Books You Must Read by Tony Isabella

Right now, I’m leafing through the pages of Tony Isabella‘s excellent new book, 1000 Comic Books You Must Read. This fun, reflective volume — chock full of classic full-color cover art — lists one man’s suggestions, not necessarily of comics’ all-time best works, but rather its most seminal volumes. Although I’m only about a quarter through the book, I’m enjoying Isabella’s approach to the theme — especially his broad-based perspective that includes key issues outside the superhero genre which dominates the field today, including Western, romance, and funny animal comics.

Isabella makes a terrific choice to compile such a volume. A noted comics writer and editor who began his career at Marvel in 1972, he has for many years written the “Tony’s Tips” column for Comic Buyer’s Guide magazine, as well as a companion blog called Tony’s Online Tips. Never shy with an opinion, Isabella’s blog is one of a mere handful of comics sites I frequent.

Since I’m reading Tony’s book, I thought this might be a good time to leap back into the archives and pull out a couple of Common Elements commissions featuring characters Tony created… namely, Black Lightning and Tigra.

Elektra and Black Lightning, pencils and inks by comics artist Darryl Banks

Black Lightning — seen above with Marvel’s antiheroine Elektra, in a commissioned drawing by Darryl Banks — may be Isabella’s most famous contribution to the comics pantheon. Created by Isabella and designed by artist Trevor Von Eeden, Black Lightning was DC’s first hero of African heritage to headline his own series; not surprising, given that DC’s foot-dragging in introducing superheroes of color is the stuff of comics history. By way of comparison, by the time Black Lightning debuted in April 1977, Marvel had already given masthead status to four black heroes, beginning with the Falcon in 1971 (in Captain America and the Falcon) and followed by Luke Cage in 1972 (in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire), the Black Panther in 1973 (in Jungle Action, Featuring the Black Panther, followed by an eponymous series beginning in January 1977), and Black Goliath in 1976 (in Black Goliath — written, not coincidentally, by Tony Isabella).

In his original incarnation, Black Lightning was in civilian life a high school principal and former Olympic decathlete named Jefferson Pierce. Over time, Pierce gained sufficient status that he rose to the position of U.S. Secretary of Education (in an administration led by President Lex Luthor — not exactly a bright spot on one’s résumé). Black Lightning has served several tours of duty in the superhero team known as the Outsiders, and recently was a member of the Justice League of America for a period of time.

Tiger Girl and Tigra, pencils and inks by comics artist Greg LaRocque

Unlike Black Lightning, who sprang from whole cloth in the mind of Tony Isabella, Tigra — seen here at right, alongside Dell Comics’ Tiger Girl and friend, in a drawing by Greg LaRocque — was a preexisting character named Greer Nelson, whom Isabella and artist Don Perlin transmogrified from a rather generic Catwoman knockoff called the Cat into a “were-woman” who was half-human, half-tiger. (The “were-woman” business always confused me. If a werewolf is a man who transforms into a wolf, shouldn’t a were-woman be a man who transforms into a woman? But then, that’s why they don’t hire me to write comics. I’m too darned logical.)

Debuting in her new identity in Marvel’s Giant-Size Creatures #1 (July 1974 — and, just to be clear — it was the magazine, not Tigra, that was giant-size), Tigra soon became the featured character in another horror-flavored comic called Marvel Chillers. After a stint as a solo act, Tigra joined the Avengers, then later moved to California as a charter member of the superteam’s branch franchise, the West Coast Avengers (eventually redubbed Avengers West Coast). More recently, she has served as one of the government-licensed superheroes in the 50-State Initiative, and as leader of the underground Avengers Resistance.

If you’re interested in a fond glance back at more than 70 years of comic book history, I recommend Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read, as well as the author’s continuing blog, Tony’s Online Tips. You can tell Tony your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.