Category Archives: Comic Book Art

Atlas/Seaboard Produced At Least One Great Cover

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Martin Goodman, founder of Marvel Comics, left his company in 1972 (he had sold it in 1968). He went on to form a new comic book and magazine publishing company called Atlas Comics in 1974. It’s referred to today as Atlas/Seaboard so as not to confuse it with Goodman’s other publishing company called Atlas that later became Marvel in 1961. He wanted to compete with the big two: DC Comics and, of course, his former company. He hired Stan Lee’s brother Larry Lieber as an editor and offered good money, along with rights to character creations and ownership of their artwork, to freelance artists to get them to come aboard.

He did get some of the big names in the field at the time. Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, John Severin, Russ Heath, and others all lent their considerable talents to the venture.

I can remember being excited about a new comic book company. I even bought a few of their comics. But, the mid 1970s was a rough time for comic books, even for the big two. Atlas just couldn’t compete and it folded in late 1975. None of their titles went more than four issues.

At least one great cover was produced in the upstart’s brief existence. This great cover isn’t by Adams or Ditko or any of the big name artists of the day. It’s also not by the then up and coming Howard Chaykin. No, this cover of the first issue of Targitt (March, 1975) was drawn and inked by Dick Giordano.

Giordano was more known for inking comics over at DC than for being an artist. But, as an artist, he was pretty good. You can see an influence from Neal Adams on this cover, most notably the arm of the bad guy wielding a knife. This makes sense, because Giordano inked a lot of Adams’ pencils for DC.

The Dutch angle might be a little on the severe side. I mean, they are obviously on a ship. Are the seas that rough? If so, why is the deck so dry? Oh. The bad guy’s “going down with the ship” comment isn’t just a pun? Well, the severity adds to the tension and impending action of the scene. Besides, I like Dutch angles.

I do think it was a mistake to have the guy with the speargun getting off a shot. He’s so close to a fellow standing stock still and yet he misses? Did he attend the Imperial Stormtrooper Academy™? Perhaps it’s just a warning shot.

I also like the idea of the character of Targitt. He’s an FBI agent bent on revenge against the Mob who was responsible for the death of his wife and child. There’s a whole Dirty Harry/Death Wish/Punisher vibe to the guy. But, Atlas decided over the next two issues to turn him into a costumed superhero. That was a mistake.

Atlas may have been short-lived, but they gave us this great cover.

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A Great American Comic Book Cover

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It’s a great Captain America cover despite it showing the patriotic hero having been defeated. He may be down for the moment, but we know he’ll triumph in the end. He always does. Or did in those days, anyway.

This is the first great cover installment featuring Marie Severin as the artist. There weren’t many women working as comic book artists back then. Marie was a pioneer. And she was great. She drew, she inked, and she would color the pages of some of Marvel’s greatest characters. For this May, 1970 issue of Captain America (#125) she provided the pencils and color, while it was Frank Giacoia who inked it.

There is a hint of Gene Colan’s style in this cover and that may be intentional, because Gene is the artist for the pages within. Marie may have been trying to mimic his style. However, I’ve always been more of a fan of Marie’s drawing style than Gene’s. His work was good. Very cinematic. But there was something about how he drew people. Hard to explain.

Marie’s high achievements on this cover are two fold. First, as the penciler, she has drawn such a natural-looking pose of defeat. Cap is unconscious and limp, yet we can still he is a powerful man. She quite literally used the “S”-curve design for her drawing of our defeated hero. The face of the unconscious First Avenger is very nicely done, as well.

Second is her use of color.

(Allow me to sidetrack a bit here. There really is something about the way the comics from my day were colored that make them so much more appealing to me. It’s probably because that’s the way it was done when I first learned to appreciate comic books and so it’s more familiar to me. I like the old way of laying out pages, too. The way comic books look now is fine and a lot of the stuff is great, but I guess I just prefer the old ways.)

Marie’s use of color and heavy black on this cover are terrific at suggesting defeat and dread. Cap has been captured and is being held captive in a cold and dank castle. The blue of his uniform even seems darker with that hint of purple. The use of grey to shade his face instead of flat black is also a nice touch.

Captain America, as drawn by Marie Severin, still looks great even in defeat.

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This Month’s Great Cover Ended An Era And Started Another

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In the mid-1950s, the US Government seemed to believe that comic books were turning America’s youth into juvenile delinquents. Rep. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn) led the charge in Congress to stop the evil influence of comic books on America’s future. Funny. I thought the 1950s was when America was great. Huh.

Well, anyway.

There was one company in particular that really drew the attention of America’s decency standards keepers: EC Comics. In those days, EC was the comic book publisher that was most consistent in publishing quality comic books. The stories were intriguing and challenging and the artwork was some of the best in the industry, as this month’s cover by Johnny Craig demonstrates.

The cover is from issue number 22 of Crime Suspenstories (May, 1954) and it became the centerpiece of the US House Committee hearings on comic books, led by the worried Rep. Kefauver. The Congressman grilled then owner of EC, William “Bill” Gaines, on whether or not he considered a cover depicting a murdered woman with a man holding her severed head to be in good taste. Gaines thought it was for a horror comic book not necessarily meant for kids.

Gaines pointed out that the cover didn’t show the viscera of the severed neck nor of the body laying on the floor. However, I’ve read somewhere that Craig had originally drawn the cover depicting where the neck had been cut. It was redrawn to tone it down.

Well, the hearings led to the industry forming the Comics Code Authority in 1954. This body was to set down rules as to what could and could not be depicted in comic books. The Comics Code Authority remained active until the early 2000s, but their power had been eroding for years before then.

Soon after the Comics Code came into being, Bill Gaines shut down all of his comic book titles. Ending an era. He turned his attention to a magazine that had started as a comic book. Magazines weren’t subject to the Code, so he could do what he liked with them. And he liked satire. The magazine was Mad. And so began another era.

Phew, so much for the history. Now let’s look at that controversial cover…

First there is the general layout of an EC cover. There’s the banner title with a solid color for the background. The art is framed in a square taking up about two thirds of the cover. Marvel Comics would adopt this layout for a time in the 1970s.

The artwork itself is very well drawn by Craig. Craig’s execution is terrific. Without having it detailed for us, the positioning of the body on the floor, the look on the victim’s face, and the blood-spattered (done in black) axe tells the viewer that a man has just loped off a woman’s head. The under lighting on the severed head and the murderer’s arm add to the drama.

But, Craig has also done two things that are quite subtle. First is the positioning of the axe. I may be reading something into this that isn’t there, having a dirty mind as I do, but there’s a certain phallicness to it, don’t you think? Of course it might just be, that given the design and layout constraints, that was the best way for Johnny Craig to show the man had a blood-soaked axe.

The second subtle touch is the murderer’s posture. The man is not drawn hunched forward in a position that would indicate shame. No, this man is standing upright. His shoulders held back, his chest pumped out. This pose looks to me as though he’s happy – proud! – of what he’s done.

These subtle touches along with the fabulous execution make this a great cover. It may have ended EC Comics, but it gave us Mad Magazine. Not a terrible trade-off.

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My Introduction To The Uncanny X-Men

It has been said that timing is everything and, when it came to my becoming a serious comic book collector, my timing couldn’t have been better. As I wrote in my blog about The Korvac Saga in The Avengers series, a friend had encouraged me to become a serious collector and I started collecting The Avengers and The Uncanny X-men in the summer of 1978. So, when I started collecting The Avengers, the artist was George Perez. Perez was pretty early in his career with Marvel and he was really hitting his stride when I started collecting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. My timing was also good, because they were battling one of their greatest foes: Ultron.

The first issue I bought of The Uncanny X-Men was #113 (September, 1978). My timing was a little off in that I joined a story already in progress, but that story featured the group’s greatest adversary: Magneto. And Magneto was at the height of his power. He had just defeated the new X-Men in issue #112. Pretty handily to boot.

At the time I thought Perez was a great artist, but the guy drawing The X-Men was a revelation to me. When I opened that first issue of seriously collected X-Men, I saw this…

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I was completely wowed! An it was just a character shot of Magneto approaching the “camera” with power crackling from his hand, but it was drawn so well. I loved the style. And page after page, book after book my jaw kept dropping lower than I thought was humanly possible.

The artist was John Byrne and he was working with inker Terry Austin. I will say this right here – Byrne and Austin were one to the best pairings of penciller and inker ever! The art produced by that team on this X-Men run is, in my opinion, unparalleled. Those guys were amazing. So, my timing was good to start buying when such a great team of artists was producing at such a high level.

It wasn’t just great timing for the art, there was a great writer making waves, too. The writer was Chris Claremont who, with plot assist from Byrne, set the reader on a long and winding road of powerful bad guys bringing this new group of mutants to the brink of death again and again. In fact, for a time, Professor X, the group’s founder and mentor, believed that Jean Grey (Marvel Girl/Phoenix) was the only X-Man left alive after their battle with Magneto. Phoenix and Beast (former X-Man, but an Avenger at the time) were able to escape an erupting volcano that destroyed Magneto’s sub-Antarctica super complex.

Despite their inexperience, the new team was able to defeat Magneto, but in doing so, as it appeared to Phoenix and Beast, the rest of the team were killed in the volcanic eruption. But, Cyclops, Wolverine, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Storm had survived. And they believed it was they who were the ones who got out alive.

They had dug their way out of the underground mega-station to surface in the Savage Land, a land that time forgot in the center of Antarctica. It’s a primitive jungle-covered land filled with all sorts of dangerous creatures dating back to the age of dinosaurs. There they stayed with people native to that land and eventually met up with Ka-Zar, Marvel’s answer to Tarzan.

They got a chance to rest for a while. And I got a chance to see just how well Byrne could draw the female form.

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Even Banshee was impressed.

Well, to not go on too very long, the X-Men’s rest was short-lived due to having to battle Sauron, which led to a greater battle to save the Savage Land and the world from the evil ambitions of Garokk, the Sun-God. Then they ended up in Japan and hooked up with Sunfire to fight Mandroids and to stop Moses Magnum from sinking that island nation. A battle in which Banshee lost his voice from the strain of destroying a mountain.

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All this while making their way back to their school in Westchester, NY and to Professor X. However, the Professor had decided, since he believed his X-Men were dead, to shut down the school and leave planet earth to live with his love Lilandra, Majestrix of the Shi’ar Empire.

Yeesh! You need a damn program to keep track!

But at 13, I loved it. Claremont, Byrne, and Austin weaved a complex tale of super-powered mutants going from battle to battle, developing these new and exciting characters along the way. They were even sewing in hints at troubled times ahead. Jean Grey as Phoenix had become extremely powerful and she was enjoying it a little too much. They were moving her character toward the destructive evil of Dark Phoenix, which would open a universe-spanning saga of its own.

You see how it was? I could keep going, because that creative team was just so good at putting together such a sprawling tale of this heroic group of mutants sworn to protect a world that feared and hated them. It was marvelous and it’s why the X-Men went from an also-ran, nearly cancelled, series to Marvel Comic’s marquee title.

And it’s why the Claremont/Byrne/Austin run of The Uncanny X-Men is one of the greatest of all time.

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This Month’s Great Cover Is A-Maze-ing

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Steve Ditko returns to my monthly blog series examining great comic book covers. He has been featured twice before. First was a cover he did for Charlton’s Haunted and, more recently, was the cover of a landmark issue of Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man.

This month I’ll look at another cover Mr. Ditko created for Charlton. It’s the cover of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves #65 (April, 1978). It’s not an action packed, superhero type of cover. Doctor Graves wasn’t a superhero series. It was mystery and suspense, so the way covers were designed was different. Yes, there might be battles with monsters depicted, but the genre leaned more toward stories of psychological battles.

This month’s cover is an excellent example of just such a battle. It’s a man lost in a maze. He’s small and isolated. The bird’s eye view informs us of where he is and it heightens the feeling of isolation. There’s nothing chasing him that we can see. He’s just trapped. Searching.

His facial features consist of essentially seven little dots. And the choice pale white for his face color seems to indicate fear. With his hands pressed against the walls, we’re left wondering: Is he fatigued? Desperate? Does he feel as though the walls are closing in on him? All of the above?

Ditko’s execution is fantastic. The perspective drawing of curved walls mixed in with straight, variously angled walls cannot have been easy to draw. And using the full cover gives the impression that the maze is never-ending.

It is an a-maze-ing cover! (Such a good pun, I had to use it twice.)

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You- -You Can’t Resist This Month’s Great Cover

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He is considered one of the greats of the Silver Age (1956 – 1969) of Comic Books. He helped hone the image of DC Comics in an effort to compete with the upstart Marvel Comics. (Make Mine Marvel! Whoops. Sorry. I’m a Marvel kid, what can I say?) He was Carmine Infantino and I never really cared for his drawing style.

Yes, I acknowledge he was a good storyteller and overall a good artist. I was just never moved or excited by his work. Especially in the later years of his career, when I thought his people looked too stretchy.

As I enter stock into Nostalgia Zone’s online catalog, I get to check out lots of comic covers. I have had several catch my eye and I note them for future inclusion in my great covers series. Well, whose cover should have caught my eye just recently?

Carmine Infantino’s.

This month’s cover makes excellent use of the entire page with Infantino’s drawing of Death passing quite a ponderous amount of gas. Will The Flash be overcome? Will he die? Will he get the giggles due Death’s nasty farts?

Probably not any of those. (Well, maybe he’ll chuckle to himself a little.)

I also like the use of color. According to comics.org the colorist might be Jack Adler, but they aren’t sure. The green isn’t just one shade, nor is the figure of Death. Trading the traditional black outline look for using two shades of blue, with the darker blue replacing the black, gives the figure a ghostly feel. It’s a nice touch.

I may not be a fan of Infantino’s work in general, but I think this one (and several covers done for the Batman series) looks very good.

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The Transformation Of Four Artists

In comic books, if an artist is good (and maybe a little lucky) they can have long careers, sometimes decades. A lot of factors are at play. Can they draw? Can they convey the story visually? Can they meet deadlines? Do the fans like their work? Can they keep looking fresh?

Some artists change their style, which can cause some chagrin for some fans. Just a couple months ago, on a Facebook comic book fan group page, a member posted two images of the work of John Romita Jr. One was an early piece of his from an issue of The Dazzler, the other was a Superman cover from a few years later. The fan wondered what happened to Romita Jr.’s work. Why had it gotten so different and, in their opinion, so bad?

The thing about art is that it’s really subjective. It depends on what you like. The John Romita Jr. discussion fostered plenty of disagreement. Folks were arguing about which period of Romita Jr.’s work was better. There were lots of opinions attempting to justify each person’s position, making consensus difficult.

What do I think? Later John Romita Jr. illustration is better.

The answer to what happened to John Romita Jr.’s work, and I’m speculating here, is that he appeared to have decided to stop trying to conform to a formulaic comic book style and started drawing in his style. And, in my opinion, his work got so much more interesting.

Romita Jr. is one of four artists that come to my mind as examples of embracing their own style and achieving greater artistic heights. The others are Barry Windsor-Smith, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Mike Mignola. They are each examples of artists coming into the industry with a look that wasn’t especially interesting (not bad, just not interesting), and then developed into great and unique artists.

Barry Windsor-Smith

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So much Jack Kirby (and some Jim Steranko), but where is Barry Windsor-Smith?

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Some Windsor-Smith is beginning to break through.

Barry Windsor-Smith started working for Marvel in the late 1960s. His Jack Kirby-like style endeared him to Stan Lee. That got Windsor-Smith’s foot in the door, but then he began to adjust his style and moved away from producing work the looked like Kirby to work that had elements of Joe Kubert and Moebius, but was becoming more an more his own look. His progression in the ’70s and ’80s right through the 2000s is nothing less than astounding.

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Brilliant!

Bill Sienkiewicz

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It’s good, but very Neal Adams-ish.

When Marvel Comics’ character Moon Knight received his own title in 1980, Bill Sienkiewicz was the artist at the helm. He had done a few Fantastic Four issues as well and he had a decided Neal Adams style. As his work continued on Moon Knight, the Neal Adams influence began to fade and what Sienkiewicz began to produce would lead to a style that, although having similarities to illustrator Bob Peak’s work, really was all his own and very innovative in the field of comic books.

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Now that’s some Bill Sienkiewicz!

His work may not have pleased purists, but it brought comic book art into a whole new strata of illustration.

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Brilliant!

Mike Mignola

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It’s not quite right.

Mike Mignola started at Marvel in the early ’80s and I was buying Alpha Flight when he took over pencils after John Byrne left the book and I was… underwhelmed. Something just didn’t look right. Eventually, even while drawing superheroes, Mignola’s style began to come through. My whelmness increased. And when Hellboy debuted, I felt Mignola’s true style had fully revealed itself.

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Mignola’s uniqueness!

John Romita Jr.

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It’s not bad, it just doesn’t quite grab me.

This brings me to the artist I talked about at the beginning of this week’s blog. I think John Romita Jr.’s career has the benefit and difficulty of following in his father’s footsteps. The senior Romita cast a very large shadow. His influence on Marvel Comics in the ’60s and ’70s cannot be overstated. The man was a workhorse and he was a large factor in establishing the Marvel look.

So, I think, when Romita Jr. started he was pretty much locked in those giant footsteps of his father’s, but he began to allow his style to come out. His doing so, in my opinion, propelled his work beyond that of his father’s.

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Junior has emerged from his father’s shadow and I’m grabbed.

 

What these four artists have in common is they all started in the industry working in the style set down by their predecessors. They were all capable storytellers, but they lacked that certain something. When each artist shook off the establishment style and embraced they own way of drawing, their work became more fresh and exciting. They became innovators and they expanded the world of comic book art.

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