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Comic Art Friday: Common Elements Sesquicentennial

December 1, 2017

When I began my Common Elements commission series back in 2004, the thought never really seeped into my consciousness that one day I would own 150 of these custom artworks. And yet, 13 years later, here we are.

Mary Marvel and Isis, pencils and inks by Ramona Fradon

From the beginning, Common Elements has been a labor of love. (Or maybe obsession.) Not only has it afforded me the opportunity to interact with more than 100 individual comic artists — 111 at present count — but it’s also served as a unique testimony to my spider-web-like thought process.

People who know me in the real world will attest that I have a bizarre knack for mentally tying disparate things together. Mention a movie, a book, a song, or even just a word, and I immediately think of a dozen other items that connect in some way to whatever you mentioned. (If you want to know the secret to my dubious success as a Jeopardy! champion, that’s two-thirds of it right there.) Sometimes those connections are obvious. Sometimes they’re ties that almost no one else would identify. And that, of course, is Common Elements in a nutshell.

(Which reminds me: I really need to get Squirrel Girl into a CE. And yes, I already have a couple of ideas.)

When I realized that the next Common Elements piece I commissioned would be #150, I wanted to do something special to mark the anniversary. Then a note scrolled by on my Facebook feed indicating that Eisner Hall of Fame artist Ramona Fradon was celebrating her 91st birthday. Since I don’t know of any comic artists who are 150 years of age and still drawing breathing, I figured that the legendary Ms. Fradon was as close as I was likely to find. Toss in the fact that Ramona also penciled Common Elements #91 (featuring her co-creation Metamorpho alongside Hourman), and the appropriateness could not have been more clear.

Knowing the lovely lighter tone which with Ms. Fradon depicts characters, I assigned her the pairing of Mary Marvel and Isis. Those of you of a certain vintage will remember that Mary’s brother Captain Marvel (called Shazam in more recent DC comics, mostly due to trademark conflicts involving the several Marvel Comics characters known as Captain Marvel, all of whom postdate the Big Red Cheese) headlined his own live-action Saturday morning TV series in the mid-1970s.

Originally, Filmation — the studio that produced the program — wanted to pair Captain Marvel with his sister Mary. Depending on whose account you believe, either DC wanted more money in broadcast rights fees for the use of Mary Marvel than Filmation wanted to pay, or DC refused to offer Filmation Mary’s broadcast rights in order to keep her available for future TV/movie projects. Whatever the particulars, Filmation decided to proceed without Mary. Instead, they created a new character called Isis, who shared several of Mary’s attributes — an ordinary young woman (an adult schoolteacher, unlike the teenaged Mary) gained a costume and superpowers (based on figures from Egyptian mythology, whereas Mary’s derived from mostly Greco-Roman deities) by speaking a magical incantation (“O mighty Isis!” instead of “Shazam!”). Thus, The Secrets of Isis became the companion series to Filmation’s Shazam!

DC published, concurrent with the TV show, a comic book series featuring Isis. They didn’t hire Ramona Fradon to illustrate it, but as you can judge from our featured artwork, they would not have been wrong if they had. (No slight intended to the talented Mike Vosburg, who drew most of the Isis comics and did a fantastic job.)

Interestingly, a retooled version of Isis recently joined the cast of the TV series, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. The new character, played by actress Tala Ashe, goes by the code name Zari instead of Isis, for reasons that you can easily surmise if you’ve read or watched the news anytime in the last decade. And though she doesn’t transform, she does wear an amulet resembling the one originally worn by Isis.

In honor of Common Elements’ 150th, I’ll share a few random facts about the series to date:

Most prolific pencil artist: Ron Lim, with six Common Elements credits (CE #’s 48, 80, 100, 111, 118, and 124).

Most prolific inker: Bob Almond, who has inked 15 Common Elements projects thus far, and will doubtless ink more in days and years ahead.

Characters most frequently represented: Wonder Woman and Vixen, with four appearances each (although none together). Six characters have made three appearances: Storm, Valkyrie, Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Black Cat (that’s Linda Turner, the Golden Age Black Cat; the modern-era Black Cat, Felicia Hardy, appears only twice, counting one commission that is currently in progress). A total of 39 characters appear twice each.

Characters who appear in multiple guises: Four Jean Grey (as Marvel Girl and Phoenix), Steve Rogers (as Captain America and Nomad), Michael Jon Carter (as Booster Gold and Supernova), and Greer Nelson (as Tigra and The Cat).

And the saddest list of all — the artists who have passed since contributing their Common Elements creations: RIP Herb Trimpe, Rich Buckler, Ernie Chan, Dave Hoover, Tony DeZuniga, and Al Rio. I’ll extend an honorary mention to Dave Simons, who was working on a Common Elements commission at the time of his passing. The concept Dave was assigned was later commissioned to, and completed by, Dave’s longtime collaborator Bob Budiansky (CE #92).

Questions I’m asked:

What’s your favorite Common Elements commission? I’d never be able to narrow it to just one. Even if I chose a Top Ten, I might pick an entirely different group if you asked me on another day. Thus, my standard answer: “The next one.”

If money were no object, who’s the “holy grail” Common Elements artist? It would be difficult to top a Common Elements piece by Adam Hughes, Alex Ross, or Mark Schultz. There are several others close to those three, but whom I realistically think I might be able to land someday.

Are there artists who are no longer with us whom you regret not commissioning when you could have? So many… but at the top of the list (limiting the scope to artists active since I began Common Elements) would have to be Mike Wieringo and Darwyn Cooke. My all-time dream would be Dave Stevens, but Stevens would have been unattainable even when he was still alive and working.

Name three artists from any period in history you’d resurrect to draw a Common Elements commission. Titian, Alphonse Mucha, and Albert Joseph Moore. Add one from comics history: Matt Baker.

How many Common Elements concepts are still on your to-do list? Probably another 150… and the list grows all the time.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Comic Art Friday: The girls most unlikely

March 3, 2017

I occasionally sit in awe of how far the superhero genre has risen in popular culture in the past few years.

Back when I was a wee lad, we felt incredibly lucky to see our favorite comics heroes live out their adventures on television in dreadfully animated, clunkily voice-acted cartoons, like the tragic Grantray-Lawrence Marvel Super Heroes series or the only mildly dorky Super Friends. On the rare occasion we got to see these characters in live-action, the gamut ran from the campy Batman and Wonder Woman to the embarrassing Marvel efforts of the 1970s (the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series, the ghastly Captain America TV movies, the WTF-inducing Doctor Strange pilot). Even the more credible attempts bore only passing resemblance to the stalwarts we knew and loved (I’m looking at you, The Incredible Hulk). But we were glad to have them.

Fast forward to the present day, and we’re living in Superhero Nirvana. Not only do we see the major players from both Marvel and DC comics explode from the silver screen on a near-constant basis (the latest Wolverine feature film, Logan, is premiering at your local cinema even as I type), but our television viewing hours are chock-full of real live superheroes 24/7, from the DC-based series filling The CW’s nightly schedule (Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow) to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the outstanding slate of MCU series on Netflix (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the forthcoming Iron Fist, The Defenders, and Punisher). Even C-list characters like The Inhumans (cast list announced today!) and Cloak and Dagger have live-action series in the works.

It’s a grand time to be a superhero fan.

Mantis and Gypsy, pencils by Robb Phipps

If you’d asked me before the present boom times to name the least likely former members of both the Avengers and the Justice League ever to see the light of live-action film or television, the two heroines depicted in today’s featured artwork (created by penciler Robb Phipps a full decade ago, in 2007) would have landed near the top of both lists.

Mantis — a half-Vietnamese, half-German martial artist and former prostitute raised by the alien Kree to be the Celestial Madonna (hey, I don’t make this stuff up, I only report it) — was a peculiar addition to the Avengers lineup even in the freewheeling, anything-goes Bronze Age of the ’70s. Gypsy — a one-time teenage runaway with illusion-creating powers — typified the mid-’80s Justice League era that many fans consider the most forgettable period in the team’s storied history.

And yet, here they are, living and breathing before your very eyes. Gypsy is now a recurring guest star on The Flash, played by Sleepy Hollow veteran Jessica Camacho. Mantis (played by the charmingly named Pom Klementieff) is the newest member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, whose second blockbuster motion picture arrives in May at a theater near you.

While it’s true that the live-action versions of both characters differ substantially from their comic book counterparts — the TV Gypsy, in particular, shares little in common with her printed predecessor besides the code name — it’s also true that I never thought I’d see the day when either of these remarkable superwomen would be portrayed in any form by a flesh-and-blood human being in a big-budget Hollywood production.

As I said before… it’s a grand time to be a superhero fan.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Things are about to get hairy

December 2, 2016

millionairelogo

Hey, did I mention that I’m going to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on Monday, December 5?

Now I did.

I’ll have more to say after the show airs. But for the time being, make sure to set your DVR. (Check your local listings for time and channel.)

It’s fair to suppose that if I walk away from my latest foray into television gaming a millionaire, I will probably spend at least a few shekels on new comic art. (My art collection may even rate a mention on Millionaire… but you’ll have to wait and see.) In the meanwhile, I can still admire the pieces I already own — including this one, commissioned earlier this year at San Francisco Comic Con, by the talented Casey Jones.

The Cat and The Beast, pencils and inks by Casey Jones

On a Comic Art Friday a few months back, we discussed Greer Grant Nelson’s transformation from the costumed heroine known as the Cat into the half-human, half-feline Avenger Tigra. It occurred to me that Greer wasn’t the only character to undergo a similar makeover.

In March 1972, just a half-year before Greer first donned her Cat-suit, founding X-Men member Henry “Hank” McCoy — a.k.a. the Beast — was starring in his own feature in the anthology series Amazing Adventures. From his debut in Uncanny X-Men #1, Hank’s mutant abilities had manifested in overly large hands and feet, combined with superhuman strength and ape-like agility. Aside from his impressive appendages, Hank looked pretty much like a normal human.

But in Amazing Adventures #11, Hank’s self-experiment in hormonal therapy pushed his mutation to another level, enhancing his powers (making Hank even stronger than before, and adding a Wolverine-like healing factor), covering his body with fur (initially gray, later blue), and giving him a vaguely simian appearance. Subsequent changes would alter his image into a more cat-like mold. In time, Hank’s more feline attributes faded, and he morphed into something closer to a furry, blue approximation of his original self, albeit retaining the fangs and claws from his second mutation.

Amazing Adventures #11, cover art by Gil Kane and Bill Everett

As much as we’ve grown fond of Greer and Hank in their lovably hirsute forms, we still remember the way they looked when we first met them — and it’s those original appearances that Casey Jones enshrines for us in this fine Common Elements commission. Because they may be gone today, but hair tomorrow.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Remember: Catch me on Millionaire this coming Monday!

Comic Art Friday: Frankenheimer’s castle

February 5, 2016

People who know that I’m a film buff sometimes ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” Which is, of course, an impossible question to answer. I love many movies for many reasons, and they’re not interchangeable. How does one compare a favorite horror film (Psycho) to a favorite comedy (Blazing Saddles), or the appeal of two markedly different fantasy films (say, The Princess Bride vs. Heavy Metal)? Do I love Die Hard more or less than Double Indemnity? Streets of Fire more or less than Enter the Dragon?

You see the problem.

Anyway…

One night I happened to be parked in front of the television watching yet another of my favorite films, John Frankenheimer’s brilliant crime drama, Ronin. It’s a great piece of entertainment, combining a twisty plot; crackling dialogue; understated performances by a fine cast (including Robert DeNiro’s last truly stellar acting job before he dove headlong into self-parody, apparently permanently); and one of cinema’s all-time great car chase sequences. (Although it has his signature style all over it, many people don’t realize that Ronin was scripted by David Mamet, using the pseudonym Richard Weisz.) It’s also that rare film in which Sean Bean appears but does not die, although he does get booted from the story a third of the way in.

As I was viewing Ronin for the umpteenth time, a thought flashed to mind: “Isn’t there a superhero named Ronin?” Another thought quickly followed the first: “Didn’t Frankenheimer also direct The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Iceman Cometh? Birdman and Iceman are superheroes, too.”

And that’s how Common Elements concepts are born.

Iceman, Birdman, and Ronin, pencils by Val Semeiks

Ronin the superhero — as distinct from Ronin the movie — has actually been embodied by several different characters in the Marvel Comics universe, including Clint Barton (the Avenger better known as Hawkeye) and Eric Brooks (better known as Blade, the vampire hunter). Shown here is the original Ronin, Maya Lopez, who herself is probably more familiar to comics readers under her subsequent costumed identity, Echo. Maya is both one of the more prominent Latina heroines in superhero comics, and one of the genre’s few deaf characters.

Iceman — a.k.a. Robert “Bobby” Drake — is one of the founding members of the X-Men, going all the way back to the debut of the franchise in 1963. Historically, Bobby was the youngest in the original lineup, and was often portrayed by Marvel writers as somewhat immature and impulsive. More recently, Iceman gained publicity for coming out as gay — a revelation questioned by some readers as a retcon, given that Bobby has been romantically involved with numerous female characters over the course of his X-career.

Birdman will be familiar to those of a certain age (ahem…) as star of the fondly remembered 1960s animated TV series, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio. Designed by legendary comics artist Alex Toth (also responsible for such characters as Space Ghost and the Herculoids), Birdman is actually Ray Randall, a normal guy who receives an array of superhuman abilities from the Egyptian sun god Ra. He can fly using the powerful wings that erupt from his back, and can also fire beams of solar energy from his hands. Because his gifts derive from the sun, Birdman frequently found himself in dilemmas where the lack of sunlight robbed him of his powers temporarily. He was accompanied on his adventures by a pet eagle named Avenger.

Younger readers know Birdman from his comedic retooling in the late 1990s. In the Cartoon Network series Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, the former superhero is presented as a rather dimwitted defense lawyer, whose client list includes a diverse collection of his fellow Hanna-Barbera characters. Avenger is nowhere to be found in this adaptation, likely due to embarrassment.

Today’s featured artwork — #123 in my Common Elements theme — springs from the potent pencil of veteran comics artist Val Semeiks. This marks Val’s third foray into the world of Common Elements. As is true of both of his previous efforts, this one rocks.

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: No love for the Valkyrie

November 14, 2014

Those of us who follow comics news — and, more specifically, news of appearances by comics characters in other media, i.e., film and television — have heard quite a bit in recent weeks about the increasing profile of female superheroes in the live-action universes of Marvel and DC.

Wonder Woman finally received the green light for her own solo film, following on the heels of her debut in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel turned newest Captain Marvel, is now slated to headline a movie as well.

The Scarlet Witch will be joining the Black Widow on the roster of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in next summer’s Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron.

The TV series Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD recently introduced Bobbie Morse, better known as the heroine Mockingbird, to its cast of characters (although I don’t believe she’s actually been referred to by that code name on the show).

And Jessica Jones (who once used the superhero handle Jewel, and is best known as star of Marvel’s private detective saga, Alias) has been tapped to star in one of Marvel’s impending Netflix programs, culminating in the team epic, The Defenders.

Speaking of the Defenders, there’s at least one key name missing from all of this chatter: The Valkyrie, longtime stalwart in the Defenders superteam, and one of Marvel’s most recognizable (to comics geeks, anyway) heroines.

Valkyrie, pencils and inks by comics artist Leo Matos

To me, Valkyrie is a no-brainer for the silver screen. She’s a powerful visual — a badass blonde in Viking garb who slings a wicked sword and spear. She even rides a winged horse, named Aragorn. Who wouldn’t want to see that in IMAX?

And Val isn’t just a pretty face. She’s a warrior to the stone core, who takes neither guff from nor back seat to any man (not unlike the Lady Sif, who’s already been portrayed in both of the Thor theatrical films, and has guest-starred on the SHIELD TV series). She’s exactly the kind of strong female image the audience is clamoring for, and that the studios keep promising, without much actual delivery to date.

So far, however, Marvel Studios isn’t showing the love. There are no plans, so far as has been reported, for Val to make an appearance in any of the company’s movie or television properties. That’s a missed opportunity, in my opinion.

Here’s hoping that Valkyrie gets her day on camera sometime soon.

It’s what America wants.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Invasion Force!

July 25, 2014

Writers of fiction frequently get asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” The obvious answer is, “From my brain, duh.” Most writers not named Harlan Ellison are too polite to respond quite that bluntly.

Since I don’t write much fiction, this question is usually directed toward my Common Elements commission artworks: “Where do you get the ideas for all those bizarre matchups?” To which I reply…

From my brain. Duh. (Take that, Harlan Ellison.)

In humbler truth, I don’t always know where my Common Elements concepts originate. Usually, it’s a random thought, triggered by some equally random event or factoid. But then, if you know me in real life, you understand that’s just me. My brain is constantly kicking out random ideas, some of which spew forth from my lips or keyboard entirely without filter.

The others sometimes end up as Common Elements commissions.

The Fourth Doctor, Cyborg, and Blue Beetle, pencils and inks by Ibrahim Moustafa

The concept behind today’s featured artwork languished on my to-do list for several years, so the impetus for it has long since swirled down the drain of my vanishing memory. I think I might have been watching a TV documentary about the British Invasion of the early 196os when the concept just sort of fell together, as things in my brain often do. Whatever the genesis, that singular era in popular music history spawned this grouping of the Fourth Doctor (because Tom Baker will always be The Doctor to me), Cyborg, and the third incarnation of the Blue Beetle, a.k.a. Jaime Reyes.

You know…

A Be(a)tle, a Stone (Victor, Cyborg’s real identity), and a (Doctor) Who.

***drops mic***

Credit to artist Ibrahim Moustafa, co-creator (with writer Christopher Sebela) of the Eisner-nominated digital comic series High Crimes, for bringing my whacked-out notion to life. A special thanks to my fellow collector Jerry Livengood at Serendipity Art Sales for managing a smooth commission experience.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.