This week we offer a post from a guest blogger, Michael Noble from Hotchka.com. Michael spins a tale of the discovery of comic books, a favorite character, and a favorite artist…
Long, long ago I was kept home from school, sick as a dog.
I was just a gradeschooler. With a ton of aches and pains. Fever. Nausea. I felt like crap. After a visit to the doctor I was confined to my bed for days. It was probably the flu but I don’t remember precisely. As I said it was a long time ago.
On day three or so of bedridden state — a Saturday as it turned out — my mother, who had doted on me throughout the entire affair, figured the worst was over and told me it appeared I was finally on the road to recovery. She stated she was heading out on a few errands, to the store and the like, and asked if I wanted anything. I told her I did not, that I still wasn’t feeling that well. My father was outside doing yardwork, I’d no clue where my sister was. Mom said she’d be back soon.
On her return, she surprised me. “You’re looking a bit better. I know you’ve been stuck in bed for the last few days, I have something that might help while away the time,” she declared. Then, from behind her back, she withdrew a big stack of comic books.
Now, I hadn’t yet been properly introduced to comic books per se. I’d glanced over the newspaper strips here and there, but that was about as far as my comic experience had gone. Now here … here was a fat stack of colorful books. She’d obviously gotten them at a yard sale or some such as a few of them looked rather worn. But they were all in pretty good condition. I smiled realizing I was sort of excited and thanked her. She left the room.
I began thumbing through the pile to see what she’d brought me. I discovered the likes of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four and Donald Duck and something called Conan The Barbarian. I didn’t look at the rest, deciding to dip my toe in with these first few and see what they were all about. Spider-Man was funny, The Fantastic Four was a team of super heroes the like of which I’d never seen before (I would become a life long fan of The Thing from that point on) and, while I didn’t think I would get into this Conan character all that much initially, he turned out to be my favorite of the bunch. The drawings in the Conan book were strange, much different than the other books. Donald Duck was like kid stuff, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four were standard comic fare I surmised. This Conan character however … he was something all together different. He talked strangely and wore only a simple loincloth and wielded a huge sword. Whoever drew him put interesting lines and movement to him. His surroundings and the people he dealt with in the book were fun to explore.
This was my first real foray into the world of comic books and comic art. And the person who drew that Conan comic? None other than “Big” John Buscema. In the years to come as I began to collect comics and immerse myself whole heartedly into the medium I would be able to tell when he put pencil to paper. I familiarized myself with his signature style. To this day, Buscema is a favorite.
But there was a set of books in that pile my Mom brought I hadn’t looked through. I was saving them until I got through devouring those first couple issues.
And that’s when I discovered the Man-Thing.
What a freaky creature. Humanish but dripping of his swampy surroundings, gaining sustenance and strength from the fetid Everglades where he lived. As long as he stayed in his swamps he was virtually indestructible. And don’t be afraid of him if you stumble on him by chance, because whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch which attacks his empathic nature! What kind of crazy power was that? I learned all this from skipping through the several issues of Man-Thing in my possession. But it was time to stop skipping though the issues and get down to the business of finding out more of just who this Man-Thing was.
Luckily, my Mom had acquire quite a run of Man-Thing comics, all successive numbers plus a Giant-Size Man-Thing to boot … whatever that was. This, I would come to realize later, was a turning point for me in my rookie endeavor into this strange, new world. And it began with the two-part story told in Man-Thing #’s 9 & 10 written by Steve Gerber and illustrated by Mike Ploog. Those issues — “Deathwatch” and “Nobody Dies Forever” — turned my young mind topsy turvy. I read the stories back to back and then returned again to re-read them once more and suck them in all over again with an even keener eye.
First of all, the characters in the story talked like my relatives who lived in Louisiana, so that drew me in immediately. And the story was unlike anything I’d experienced before: A caustic, embittered old woman suffers a heart attack and, while her husband takes off to get help, the hate inside her manifests itself to possess trees and animals. Of course this causes havoc in the swamp and dangerous conditions for her spouse and the Man-Thing who tussles with the bewitched beings all the while trying to keep the woman’s husband safe from harm. Finally that hatred materializes on its own as a sinister creature hell-bent on the death of the couple’s pet “Dawg” who attacks the evil specter. Dawg’s courage and protection has consequences, however, and the confrontation results in the beloved animal’s demise. Strange, funky stuff to a sick kid reading in bed, recovering from a flu.
But it was the artwork, I came to realize, I was especially intrigued by. The people who brought Spider-Man and The Fanastic Four to life in the pages of their books had nothing on this Mike Ploog guy. And while John Buscema had some interesting takes on action shots and shadows to bring out what Conan was all about, Ploog did stuff with a pencil that was leaving a mighty impression deep within me.
How in the world could anyone put such life into a dog of all things? But Ploog did — drooping skin and a jowly face were what made Dawg the dog he was. How could someone possibly imagine what a crotchety old woman looks like in the throes of a heart attack and in the aftermath of death? When you can practically feel the wetness of a dripping wet piece of laundry barely miss hitting an animal squarely in the head with a big, wet “Sop!” well … that spoke to my young, impressionable mind. This was new territory for me being discovered. It was foreign and magical and mesmerizing. And I drank it all in.
In 30 some-odd pages, re-reading the books for a third time, I began to understand and recognize the intricacies and mannerisms of Mike Ploog’s artwork. His characterizations were hypnotic. The way he made the Man-Thing “move” in the panels was somehow indicative of the way I figured Man-Thing would, indeed, move. The care and craft he put into the faces of his characters caused them to emote … empathize … speak in image alone. Ploog infused a level of embodiment into what he drew that hooked me. I was in love with this Mike Ploog guy’s artwork.
And then? After three reads of each of those two books, I moved on to that Giant Size Man-Thing. And guess who drew that issue? None other than John Buscema. What a kick! Not only was I excited for a new Man-Thing adventure but I got the chance, right then and there, to do a comparison of the way Ploog and Buscema interpreted the creature and supporting characters. I was feeling better and better from the flu all the time! I eagerly dove in …
To make a long story short, the entire experience was my introduction into a love affair with comic books, a pivotal cornerstone of my childhood that launched a deep appreciation of the medium and the artists who filled comic pages with their labors.
To this very day, one of my all-time favorite artists is Mike Ploog, someone I dreamed of meeting one day. And I finally did many years later while attending San Diego Comic-Con one year. About a decade ago while snaking through the “Artist Alley” part of the show, who is right there in front of me all of a sudden as I look up but the man himself, Ploog in the flesh. I about fell over myself. The picture of he and I clearly shows my glee and enthusiasm in meeting my hero.
Coincidentally, there was a Kickstarter campaign I contributed to some months ago that will showcase the history of Ploog’s body of work, from his early days illustrating Leatherneck Magazine of the Marines (a magazine for United States Marines Corp.) right on through those glorious comic books years drawing Man-Thing and Werewolf By Night and The Monster Of Frankenstein and on into his efforts as storyboard artist and production illustrator for such films as Superman and John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. That Kickstarter volume, a 300+ page monster of a book which will be signed and numbered by Ploog himself, should be delivered to my doorstep just prior to Christmas. I’m brimming with anticipation.
Today? My collection (an out of control beast comprised of comics and books and original artwork and drawings and memorabilia and action figures and more, more, more) continues … but at a drastically stunted rate of growth, not anywhere close to the volume I collected as a kid. The cost of comics has increased exponentially from those days of yore; it’s not feasible to garner all I would like. Instead, I’m more selective now. But the thrill and joy of opening up a brand new book, especially with a new artist I’ve never seen before, is still there.
And that’s an experience you can’t buy. It’s priceless.
Michael Noble is a writer, collector, sarcastigator and lives on near the western (and better) coast of these United States. He has rules about life, is opinionated to a fault and appreciates the irony. He believes there’s a reason for everything, doesn’t sleep nearly enough and contributes to several dozen writing forums in exchange of way too little compensation. He thinks he’s likeable and he’s usually loud, which has led to him being told he’s rather frightening on first impression. On three separate occasions, Michael has single-handedly proven Cheez-Its snack crackers imprinted with Darth Vader on the box are superior to all others. He’s also a self-described musicologist … but what does he know? (Quite a lot as it turns out.)