Practitioners 53: Walt Simonson

Walter ‘Walt’ Simonson is a cheerful poster boy of independent creators within commercial comic books. An exceptional writer and artist, his love and enthusiasm for the boundless scope of possibilities available to any comic writer. His is a mind that smiles wryly at the prospect of turning a God into a frog or constantly bringing back an old idea from school to be enjoyed by many others. Simonson, more than most other artists displays an enthusiasm reminiscent of a boy. While most adults have carried the medium away from the stuff of boyhood dreams – Simonson’s work is fuelled by it creating a body of work that remains timeless and universal as childhood itself. Welcome to the House of Fun! Welcome to World of Walt Simonson!

Simonson was born in September 2, 1946. Studying at Amherst College he transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1972. He found work almost immediately, at the age of 26. As his thesis, he created the Star Slammers, which was released as a promotional black and white print in 1974 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Wahington DC (also known as Discon II). A decade later the Star Slammers returned with a graphic novel for Marvel Comics, the standard of the work strong enough to go straight to mainstream publication. 10 years later, the Star Slammers returned renewed with the fledgling Bravura label as part of Image. His is the story of an imaginative artist with his own ideas, and ones that survived decades. He has won numerous awards for his work, influencing the art of Arthur Adams and Bryan Hitch.

Effectively bulleting straight out of education and directly into work, Simonson’s first professional published comic book work was Weird War Tales #10 (Jan. 1973) for DC Comics. He also did a number of illustrations for the Harry N. Abrams, Inc. edition of The Hobbit, and at least one unrelated print (a Samurai warrior) was purchased by Harvard University’s Fogg Museum and included in its annual undergraduate-use loan program. However, his breakthrough illustration job was Manhunter, a backup feature in DC’s Detective Comics written by Archie Goodwin.

Recalling in a 2000 interview, Simonson recalled that “What Manhunter did was to establish me professionally. Before Manhunter, I was one more guy doing comics; after Manhunter, people in the field knew who I was. It’d won a bunch of awards the year that it ran, and after that, I really had no trouble finding work.” Simonson went on to draw other DC series such as Metal Men and Hercules Unbound.

A page from Thor revealing the close collaboration between Simonson and his letterer, John Workman.

In 1979 Simonson and Goodwin collaborated on an adaptation of the movie Alien, published by Heavy Metal. It was on Ridley Scott’s Alien that Simonson’s long working relationship with letterer John Workman began. Workman has lettered most of Simonson’s work since. It’s a highly collaborative unity, both professionals understanding the requirements of the job; Goodman’s lettering fitting seamlessly among the bombastic and dynamic panel arrangements.

In Fall 1978, Simonson, Howard Chaykin, Val Mayerik, and Jim Starlin formed Upstart Associates, a shared studio space on West 29th Street in New York City. The membership of the studio changed over time.

In 1982, Simonson and writer Chris Claremont produced The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans Intercompany cross-over between the two most successful titles of DC and Marvel. This would undoubtedly have been a premium title given the popularity of both parties and both companies selected quite deliberately an exciting and safe pair of hands. The additional excitement that Simonson’s graphic and powerful layouts and fun style perfectly matched such a deliberately populist title, making it a valuable asset to anyone’s collection.

However it is on Marvel’s Thor and X-Factor that Simonson is best known (the latter being a collaboration with his wife Louise Simonson, who he married in 1980 and who herself would become writer on Superman titles). Walt Simonson’s brilliantly wild imagination thudded beautifully against Thor’s mythological and fundamentally otherwordly content. He took almost complete control of the title, famously changing Thor into a frog for three issues and introducing one of the most distinct characters in the Marvel Universe, the Orange, Horse Skulled, Thor matching Beta Ray Bill, an alien warrior who unexpectedly became worthy of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir – both characters making a lasting mark on the Marvel character landscape. Starting as a writer and artist in issue #337 (Nov. 1983) and continued until #367 (May 1986), he was replaced by legend Sal Buscema as the artist on the title with #368 but Simonson continued to write the book until issue #382 (Aug. 1987) to great success.

Simonson left Upstart associates in 1986. In the 1990s he became writer of the Fantastic Four with issue #334 (Dec. 1989) and three issues later started pencilling and inking as well (accidentally the exact issue he started on Thor).

He had a popular three issue collaboration with Arthur Adams. Simonson left the Fantastic Four with issue #354 (July 1991). His other Marvel credits in the decade included co-plotting/writing the Iron Man 2020 one-shot (June 1994) and writing the Heroes Reborn version of the Avengers. His DC credits over the same period were Batman Black and White #2 (1996), Superman Special #1 (writer/artist, 1992) among others. For Dark Horse he was artist on Robocop vs Terminator #1-4. His distinctive, thick lined work matching perfectly the heavy metal nature of the storyline and central figures.

But he continued to dart seamlessly between writer and artist, never having to seek a project. His was a cheerful bounding from one distinctive project to the next across some of the greatest heroes in history.

In the 2000s Simonson has mostly worked for DC Comics. From 2000 to 2002 he wrote and illustrated Orion. After that series ended, he wrote six issues of Wonder Woman (vol. 2) drawn by Jerry Ordway. In 2002, he contributed an interview to Panel Discussions, a nonfiction book about the developing movement in sequential art and narrative literature, along with Durwin Talon, Will Eisner, Mike Mignola and Mark Schultz.

From 2003 to 2006, he drew the four issue prestige mini-series Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, written by Elric’s creator, Michael Moorcock. This series was collected as a 192 page graphic novel in 2007 by DC. He continued to work for DC in 2006 writing Hawkgirl, with pencillers Howard Chaykin, Joe Bennett, and Renato Arlem.

His other work includes cover artwork for a Bat Lash mini-series and the ongoing series Vigilante, as well as writing a Wildstorm comic book series based on the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. The Warcraft series ran 25 issues and was co-written with his wife, Louise Simonson. As a mark of his considerable impact on Marvel’s most recognisable Norse God, in 2011, he had a cameo role in the live-action Thor film, appearing as one of the guests at a large Asgardian banquet. Simonson serves on the Disbursement Committee of the comic-book industry charity The Hero Initiative.

Simonson inked his own work with a Hunt 102 Pro-quill pen. He switched to a brush during the mid-to-late 2000s, and despite the disparity between the two tools, Bryan Hitch, an admirer of Simonson’s, stated that he could not tell the difference, calling Simonsons’s brush work “as typically good and powerful as his other work.” This is reminiscent of other master artists, such as Joe Quesada, who moved to digital penmanship from the original pen. To completely alter your tools without affecting your work is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, particularly to a discerning eye such as Hitch’s.

Simonson is a cheerful and active character in the comic book industry. His technique is impeccable, distinct and miles ahead of his peers. His was a bombastic, thick-lined and crystal clear world. His visuals developing to meet the WAM BAM impact of 90s comics. He was a capable enough artist that at all times he appeared to be a much younger, much more modern artist. His was the legacy of the double page spread, the high impact panel and the perfect blend of effective technical skill and instinctive, intuitive and timeless visuals. More than anything Walt Simonson is fun to read and fun to look at. It’s an undervalued quality. A Simonson piece has the effect of a circus poster, triggering simple, cheerful reactions of universal ideas. His sense of humour permeates everything, his artwork bound ideas off the page.

Simonson’s distinctive signature consists of his last name, distorted to resemble a Brontosaurus. Simonson’s reason for this was explained in a 2006 interview. “My mom suggested a dinosaur since I was a big dinosaur fan.”

Says it all really.

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Practitioners 50: Stan Lee (Part two)

In 2011 the first Kapow convention in London pulled together a line-up of incredibly popular and legendary writers and artists. Mark Millar, Frank Quitely, John Romita Jr, Lienil Yu, Dave Gibbons, Chris Hemsworth, the cast of Being Human, Merlin, Misfits, IGN stands, Marvel, DC, film previews and a Guinness World Record attempt. In 2012, arguably it’s main competitor has Stan Lee in his first visit to a British Comic Convention. People actually saw this as a coup.

Stan Lee, legend of legends appeared at the first Super Comiccon in February 2012 at the Excel Centre in London. The effect was enormous. In an industry trying to find it’s feet it had exactly the right effect. The event was an enormous success. The crowds were more mainstream than had previously been seen. You can claim a number of reasons for this but what it boiled down to was this – it was a chance to meet the man who changed the face of comics.

In the late 1950s Stan Lee was working for what was known as Atlas Comics. He was disgruntled, writing Romance, adventure, westerns, humour, medieval adventure, horror and suspense. By the end of the decade, Lee had become dissatisfied with his career and considered quitting the field.

A curious set of circumstances began to accumulate that was to fuel the creation of Marvel Comics. In DC, Editor Julius Schwartz had run into considerable success with the updated version of the Flash, reviving the superhero archetype, and later had the same success with the Justice League of America. In response to this, publisher Martin Goodman asked Lee to create a new superhero team. Lee’s dissatisfaction with the industry was now turned into an advantage. With his intention to leave comics and with nothing to lose, Lee’s wife urged him to experiment with stories he wanted to write. It was here that the crucible of the entire Marvel Universe was formed. Lee, who, having dutifly worked for comics since he was 19 was about to change every rule.

Lee acted on the advice, giving his characters a flawed humanity, a leap from the god-like archetypes that had been striding the pages of superhero comic books. Lee introduced complex, naturalistic characters who could have bad tempers, melancholy fits, vanity; arguing amongst themselves, but crucially propelled downwards at terminal velocity back to the streets of the real, now forced to worry about bills, relationships, homework. The Superman had been knocked off his perch, dressed as Clark Kent forcibly and told to work his way back up to Superman. Champions were no longer heroes by right; Lee brought the demi-gods of Golden Age comic books back to their literary roots. They were now subject to heartache, anxiety and could even get physically ill. These aspirational figures had become accessible. No longer beyond the reach everyone on the streets, they are everyone on the street – struggling with the same impassable issues we all do.

The first was the Fantastic Four. Workaholic Reed Richards, brash and impetuous Johnny Storm, thuggish and crude Ben Grimm and the occasionally ferocious Sue Storm were hammered with cosmic rays and thrown back to Earth where they respectively gained the powers of elasticity, fire and flight, invulnerability, super strength and impervious rock skin and invisibility. The combination of super powers and real life drama is reflected now in the popularity of supernatural and superhero TV shows. It proved a flawless and undeniable combination; real life issues and concerns propelled into battles with monsters, investigation of interdimensional travel and space giants!! The most noteworthy character was Ben Grimm, named ‘The Thing’ thanks to his new found craggy demeanour. Reflected in his personality, his is in fact a science fiction story of a successful, confident figure being faced with dismemberment. Susan Storm’s feelings of abandonment by the man she loves and his lack of understanding as to why his work isn’t more important to her are universal ideas, locked in high literature and TV soaps. When the emotional story lines might dip in other genres now there were Mole Men to smack down, or intergalactic heralds declaring the arrival of a globe threatening natural disaster.

The Fantastic Four’s immediate popularity led Lee and Marvel’s assembled Marvel Illustrators, including Steve Ditko, Bill Everett and led by Jack Kirby to create a field of dreams that would outlast almost every other book on the market. With Kirby, primarily, heroes known throughout the world, representing ideals and concerns and fears recognisable to everyone began to appear out of the smoke of heady creation. Bruce Banner saved Rick Jones moments before a Gamma blast irradiated him and created the angry, defiant, thundering Hulk, genius inventor Tony Stark meets his greatest fears as he is forced to create a metal suit to save him from shrapnel wounds to create Iron Man, the mutant X-Men are assembled in a Westchester School of Higher Learning by Professor Xavier, Lawyer Matt Murdoch gains super senses as a result of losing his sight as a young boy, swearing to represent justice at both ends of the spectrum. Captain America returns from the icy seas of the North Atlantic, Namor is resurrected from war-time comic books, the Norse God Thor appears from the thunder and the Avengers are formed. Finally with Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange – an arrogant doctor who loses his hands and uncovers, in his desperation to regain them – the art of mysticism and finally, the figure that represents most clearly Stan Lee’s ideals.

Lee had been watching a fly crawling on the surface of a window and ‘marvelled’ at it’s ability to move as it did. Imagining a man capable of the same thing he decided that ‘Fly-man’ had little appeal however perhaps a ‘Spider-man’ would have a better time in the cavernous streets of Manhattan.

Stoic, brave and heroic, Peter Parker is the absolute embodiment of the Marvel ideal and it’s most successful character. Representative of every one in America, his struggles are real, his fears and worries palpable and his capacity to overcome them unlimited. Parker is the little guy, the sickly, victimised orphan boy mollycoddled by his Aunt, he is clever and brave but struggles to utilise either. With the bite of a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gains the proportional power of a Spider. Over the years Spider-man has fought every major villain in the Marvel Universe, wise-cracking all the way in a fit of denial as to the situation he is throwing himself into. Those idiosyncracies and habits are real. The overcompensation of Peter Parker to be Spider-man on the battlefield historically irritates more seasoned, honed fighters but that’s the point. He’s no professional. And Lee understood this and presented a boy trying desperately to keep up with the lot life had shown him, without realising, as so many of us do, how capable he always was. The perpetual underdog, Spider-man shines with a humanity that Lee gave him more than half a century before – and one that will never dim. Editor-in-chief Joe Quesada’s decision to scrub out Peter Parker’s life with Mary Jane, his wife, was one of genuine affection and a need to return to the vulnerability that Lee had imbued him with previously. While the character was growing, it was the innate lack of experience that Lee had given him that made Spider-man such a mainstay character and it’s testament to Lee’s decisions so long ago that Quesada felt the need to reset it.

The other defining characteristic introduced by Stan Lee was that of a shared universe. This connected all of the various characters together in a way that united the creators and readers in a way. A community could now be formed around that universe. Based in the real world, the cities were those that the readership woke up in every day. The Human Torch left a message for Spider-man across the sky over the real Manhattan. Gods walked amongst men in a way unseen. The Hulk smashed in real states, not the purpose built spires of an imaginary city such as Metropolis, Gotham or Coast City. It also reduced the level of destruction that took place in the confines of the books which bred greater creativity in developing the plots. It turned the real world, in particular New York into a sandbox world to be played with, both recognisable by real and fictitious characters. It raised the stakes as well as the events taking place had the potential to end everything we all knew. Galactus would devour our homes and towns. The nuclear threat created by Magneto would radiate part of our planet. These were gods given consequences.

While Superman’s Metropolis had been laid to waste by Doomsday and flood and rebuilt, Batman’s Gotham destroyed by plague and earthquake and Coast City decimated by star ship as a mere plot point someone else’s story in order to facilitate a plot that would bring back Superman in Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe a single school is destroyed in middle america in a dust up between super powered ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ and the effects are far more divisive and far reaching than the destruction of an entire state in DC. Stan Lee gave Marvel pathos, real life drama, boundaries and greater emotional punch. He gave us figures that could bring down buildings but crack under emotional pressure. He gave the super humans their humanity. It is something that cannot be undervalued.

Stan Lee’s Marvel revolution extended beyond the characters and storylines to the way in which comic books engaged the readership and built a sense of community between fans and creators. There has been some dispute as to the creative credit associated with his works – particularly in the case of projects with Kirby and Ditko, however Lee did more for creative credit than any other editor previously. Lee introduced the practice of including a credit panel on the splash page of each story, something now adopted into every book brought out in some manner, naming not just the writer and penciller but also the inker and letterer. This has fuelled fans of writers and artists as well as characters, titles and companies over the years and has really allowed articles such as The Practitioners to develop. Regular news about Marvel staff members and upcoming storylines was presented on the Bullpen Bulletins page, which (like the letter columns that appeared in each title) was written in a friendly, chatty style. Lee had made the Marvel Universe friendly and easy to visit – his welcoming and inclusive style and his love of people clear in his approach to how he ran this company.

Throughout the 1960s, Lee scripted, art-directed, and edited most of Marvel’s series, moderated the letters pages, wrote a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox,” and wrote endless promotional copy, often signing off with his trademark phrase “Excelsior!” (which is also the New York state motto). To maintain his taxing workload, yet still meet deadlines, he used a system that was used previously by various comic-book studios, but due to Lee’s success with it, became known as the “Marvel Method” or “Marvel style” of comic-book creation. Typically, Lee would brainstorm a story with the artist and then prepare a brief synopsis rather than a full script. Based on the synopsis, the artist would fill the allotted number of pages by determining and drawing the panel-to-panel storytelling. After the artist turned in penciled pages, Lee would write the word balloons and captions, and then oversee the lettering and coloring. In effect, the artists were co-plotters, whose collaborative first drafts Lee built upon.

Because of this system, the exact division of creative credits on Lee’s comics has been disputed, especially in cases of comics drawn by Kirby and Ditko. Lee shares co-creator credit with Kirby and Ditko on, respectively, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man feature film series.

In 1971, Lee indirectly helped reform the Comics Code. The US Department of Health, Education and Welfare had asked Lee to write a comic-book story about the dangers of drugs and Lee conceived a three-issue subplot in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 (cover-dated May–July 1971), in which Peter Parker’s best friend becomes addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to grant its seal because the stories depicted drug use; the anti-drug context was considered irrelevant. The comics sold well and Marvel won praise for its socially conscious efforts. The CCA subsequently loosened the Code to permit negative depictions of drugs, among other new freedoms.

Lee also supported using comic books to provide some measure of social commentary about the real world, often dealing with racism and bigotry. “Stan’s Soapbox”, besides promoting an upcoming comic book project, also addressed issues of discrimination, intolerance, or prejudice. This has been seen throughout Marvel’s history as writers introduce plots they feel particularly strong about, Peter David’s continued inclusion of gay and lesbian agendas in his work from The Incredible Hulk and X-Factor has allowed a subject he feels strongly about be presented in an unusual but popular medium. That, in part, is thanks to Stan Lee’s years of effort and devotion to putting out positive messages of tolerance and civility.

But it is Stan Lee’s lasting legacy (one that he still fuels) that has elevated him above other writers, artists and creators. His relationship with his fans and his creations have made him synonomous with them. If you type in Stan Lee into any search engine, the majority of the images generated will be of the man himself; as famous as any one of his creations. That was what we saw at Super Comicon in London on February 25th and 26th in 2012. A man who allowed millions to dream of seeing a man fly through the sky on rocket jets – but more importantly – made it clear that they could just as easily be that man themselves.

Next: The Legacy of Stan Lee.

Practitioners 50: Stan Lee (Part 1)

As Norse Gods, American super soldiers and billionaire playboy philanthropist technocrats in multi-billion dollar battle suits launch into battle across cinema screens throughout the world to a hail of cheers and applause from fans of adventure of all ages does anyone wonder who decided to put these characters together? As the Silver Surfer CGI expands the limits of modern special effects technology on the silver screen while being pursued by a man on fire across the skyline of Manhattan does anyone notice the slightly built, silver haired gentleman in glasses being turned away from Sue and Reed Richard’s wedding? It’s the man who created the flaming figure and put him in Manhattan, who created the platform upon which the Silver Surfer sails, the Hulk smashes, Ghost Rider seeks vengeance and Spider-man spins his web. Let’s not beat around the bush. No Stan Lee, no Avengers, Spider-man, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk. No Marvel comics. So no bringing Nick Fury, Namor and Captain America back from the dead. No Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil, Jack Flag. No Wolverine, Elektra, War Machine, Mary Jane. Definitely no Aunt May or J.Jonah Jameson.

Lee is a world class media operator before media operators were known to exist. Given opportunities many others had in the boom of comic books, Lee created something substantial, meaningful and powerful. He created a framework that would prove to be the single most well known and profitable set of franchises in history, revolutionise the way people read comics and bring a wry smile to many a fanboys face. He’s Stan Lee. There is no one like him. And this is his story…

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in a tiny apartment at the corner of West 98th Street and West End Avenue, New York City on December 28, 1922. His father worked a dress cutter, working only sporadically after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Lee had one other sibling, his brother , Harry Lieber, 9 years Lee’s junior and described the one-bedroom apartment he and the rest of his family had lived in at 1720 University Avenue as “a third-floor apartment facing out back”, with him and his brother sharing a bedroom and his parents using a foldout couch.

Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, part of the swashbuckling capers that a young boy who would grow up to be Stan Lee was inspired by

As a child, Lee has recently revealed that he was fascinated and influenced by books and movies, in particular those of legendary swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. Attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Lee found entertainment and inspiration in his voracious reading habit. His penchant for writing was present early on, as a youth he worked such part time jobs as writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Turberculosis Centre (where presumably he gained his chatty patter, while trying to alleviate the heavy language associated with such writing you can only imagine that writing anything lighter was a distinct joy), delivering sandwiches for the Jack May pharmacy to offices in Rockefeller Center, working as a trouser boy for a trouser manufacturer; ushering at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway; and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. Graduating high school early at 16 and a half in 1939, Lee joined the arguably awkwardly titled WPA Federal Theatre Project.

At a young age, as other Practitioners such as Jack Kirby were roughing in the streets and studying to become artists, Lee had immersed himself in New York. He had mucked in and fronted life out on the island of Manhattan. He hadn’t leapt straight for his dream job with both hands but done something immeasurably more valuable perhaps as a writer. He’d experienced the corners and seen the offices and lives of the average joe of Manhattan. This is something that would undoubtedly inform his work later in his career. This, perhaps, is where Lee’s fascination with the struggle of the average guy formed. In the shadows of the heaven fingering ramparts of giant cathedrals to man’s development and upper limits, there was still the guy making his way from one building to the next bringing sandwiches. New York is perhaps greatest of all cities for this, elevating it’s environment to represent grandeur and greatness while presenting daily struggle and difficulty to the great majority of it’s inhabitants that fuel it. It’s not that no other major city such as London, Paris or Tokyo represented this with both squalor and riches, but nowhere else have they both been so obvious and pronounced and yet so mixed and reliant on the other or for so long than in New York. Without the lingering class systems of London and Tokyo or the leveled society of federal and social in Paris, a dress cutter’s son, educated in the Bronx can wander into the marble lined halls of the Rockefeller center. It blended the exceptional with the every day. New York allowed the average person to witness Marvels.

Sometimes it’s not what you know but who you know and Stan Lee’s first step into comic books was with Timely Comics, thanks to his uncle, Robbie Solomon. Now an assistant on Timely Comics’ division of Pulp magazine and comic book publisher Martin Goodman’s company. Lee’s cousin Jean was Goodman’s wife, which would put Lee in good stead by the time he was hired by the great, Capatain- America-creating Joe Simon. But it wasn’t an unstoppable climb to stardom for Stan Lee.

Captain America # 3 (Stan Lee's first writing assignment)

His duties were prosaic at first and much like that which he had had to do in previous work. “In those days [the artists] dipped the pen in ink, [so] I had to make sure the inkwells were filled”, Lee recalled in 2009. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them”. Marshaling his childhood ambition to be a writer, young Stanley Lieber made his comic-book debut with the text filler “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941), using the pseudonym “Stan Lee”, which years later he would adopt as his legal name. Lee later explained in his autobiography and numerous other sources that he had intended to save his given name for more literary work, something that never really surfaced. Lee began immediately to have a lasting effect on the characters that still continue today, with this initial story also introducing Captain America’s trademark ricocheting shield-toss, which immediately became one of the character’s signatures.

He graduated from writing filler to actual comics with a backup feature, “‘Headline’ Hunter, Foreign Correspondent”, two issues later. Lee’s first superhero co-creation was the Destroyer, in Mystic Comics #6 (Aug 1941). The Destroyer was a field journalist, Keen Marlow, captured behind enemy lines and experimented upon with a super hero serum similar to that used on Captain America. The Destroyer was Lee’s most popular character prior to the Fantastic Four and enjoyed a MAX imprint (Volume 4) through Lee’s company Marvel very recently. Other characters he created during this period fans and historians call the Golden Age of comics include Jack Frost, (an amnesiac character made entirely of ice who woke in the icy wastes of the antarctic and is reminiscent of latter day Ice man Bobby Drake) debuting in USA Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and Father Time (an interesting character used as back up material for Captain America 6-12, involving a hooded figure with a scythe who turns time against crooks), debuting in Captain America Comics #6 (Aug. 1941).

When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left late in 1941, following a dispute with Goodman, the 30-year-old publisher made a decision that frankly, would alter the face of comics. He installed Stan Lee, just under 19 years old, as interim editor. Unsurprisingly, given Lee’s capacity for operating seamlessly between mover and shaker in later years, Lee showed an ability for business that led him to remain as the comic-book division’s editor-in-chief, as well as art director for much of that time.

But many of Lee’s friends and colleagues of similar age had been called to war and in early 1942, Lee had his call to join the United States Army. He would serve stateside in the Signal Corps, the section of the army that provides communications, writing manuals, training films, slogans and occasionally cartooning. In true Stan Lee style, while Jack Kirby walked into enemy territory to draw maps, Lee’s military classification, he says, was ‘playwright’ adding that only 9 men in the U.S. Army were given that title. Vincent Fago, editor of Timely’s animation comics section, which put out humour and funny animal comics, filled in until Lee got back from his World War II military service in 1945. Danger of bad back from sitting in a chair too long seemingly averted, Lee returned and now lived in the the rented top floor of a Brownstone in the East 90s in Manhattan, much like a certain young man and his doting auntie managed to almost 50 years later….

Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part 3)

In November 1961 The Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands across America. The story of four uniquely powered individuals related to each other as relatives, in friendship and purpose, revolutionised the industry. Although clearly reminiscent of hundreds of Sci-fi books before this had a comparative naturalism to it that hadn’t been seen before blended with a cosmic purview informed by boundless imagination. It was powered by Marvel Editor-in-chief Stan Lee and seasoned comics artist Jack Kirby.

For almost a decade, Kirby provided Marvel’s house style, co-creating with Stan Lee many of the Marvel characters and designing their visual motifs. At Lee’s request he often provided ‘new-to-marvel artists ‘breakdown’ layouts, over which they would pencil in order to become acquainted with the Marvel look. As artist Gil Kane described:

‘Jack was the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company … It wasn’t merely that Jack conceived most of the characters that are being done, but … Jack’s point of view and philosophy of drawing became the governing philosophy of the entire publishing company and, beyond the publishing company, of the entire field … [Marvel took] Jack and use[d] him as a primer. They would get artists … and they taught them the ABCs, which amounted to learning Jack Kirby. … Jack was like the Holy Scripture and they simply had to follow him without deviation. That’s what was told to me … It was how they taught everyone to reconcile all those opposing attitudes to one single master point of view.’

Highlights from the House of Ideas other than the Fantastic Four include: Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, the original X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Uatu the Watcher, Magneto, Ego the Living Planet, the Inhumans and their hidden city Attilan and the Black Panther – comic’s first black superhero – and his African nation Wakanda. Last year and 2010 Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men grossed worldwide ($1,425,062,845) One Billion, four hundred and twenty five million, sixty two thousand, eight hundred and forty five dollars (A combination of $623,933,331 for Iron Man 2, $448,512,824 for Thor and $352,616,690 for X-Men: First Class). This was begun by two men, one of which was Jack Kirby. They cemented the concepts so clearly that while developed, the core values remain. All of them have the best writers, directors and actors vying to be a small part in the development of these ideas formed 51 years ago. Decades of the most talented artists have looked to Kirby for inspiration. His ideas as only presented more clearly, barely changed from the original concept design – perhaps drawn, in one case, on a table in Brooklyn many years before – with thoughts of war he hadn’t yet been called on to fight in his mind.

In March 1964, Simon and Kirby’s Captain America was also incorporated into Marvel, Kirby approving Lee’s idea of partially remaking the characters as a man out of his time and regretting the death of his partner. The suit returned almost exactly as it had been 23 years before. Last year, Captain America made $368,608,363 at the box office as Kirby’s suit stepped, again almost unchanged close to 70 years after the day it was designed on the back of Chris Evans.

In 1968 and 1969, Joe Simon was involved in litigation with Marvel Comics over the ownership of Captain America, initiated by Marvel after Simon registered the copyright renewal for Captain America in his own name. According to Simon, Kirby agreed to support the company in the litigation and, as part of a deal Kirby made with publisher Martin Goodman, signed over to Marvel any rights he might have had to the character.

Kirby continued to push the industries boundaries, devising photo collage covers and interiors reminiscent of ’80s artists in England playing with sellotape and photocopiers. Developing new drawing techniques such as the method of depicting energy fields known as ‘Kirbydots’ and other experiments. Able to handle high detail, explosive composition, emotion, perspective, conceptualisation and design – it was Kirby’s sense of scale that blows many artists away. Alien engines dwarf figures in certain panels, coils, springs and rivets collected together in such ways that they seem to be an optical illusion. Perspective twists in some of his environments such as Mr Fantastic’s lab in a way that somehow bends the eye. Many generations of artists have dismissed Kirby as dated or unsophisticated until presented with his depictions of machinery and the Silver Surfer.

A character of incredible simplicity, divinity and … just … cool. The concept of a humanoid riding the waves of space at incredible speeds highlights the natural beauty and associations with divine advancement incorporating the universe around it and the increased simplicity it brings. But none of that is said. But all of it is inherent. A perfectly formed, universally accessible character made even more interesting by Stan Lee by being a good man acting as herald to a being of unimaginable power. Again, the genius of the character is that it is a perfect template that can be adapted into anyone’s style. Much like any Kirby character you can mention. The simplicity and intuitive details he applies are often so universal that they are only more interesting with each new reinterpretation. While Iron Man had to inevitably change as technology developed, Thor still carries the same Hammer and wears the same white riveted top, Captain America still has his Red, White and Blue, the star on his chest and the skull cap design applied to him in the newest incarnation, the Ultimates, by Bryan Hitch is a throwback to Kirby’s original design, Hulk remains Green (as he was in his second appearance) and even had a Grey countenance as Peter David’s Joe Fixit in the ’90s – a nod to the original design. Black Panther, Magneto, The Inhumans and Attilan have also only ever been refined – never redesigned. This is the testament to the lasting influence of Kirby. Even the X-Men have retained the yellow and blue of their original uniforms for more than 45 years. Somehow Kirby just knew. Wiser than the rest of us what he put down on paper worked and generations of artists have never cracked how to improve on his original designs.

Yet, Kirby grew increasingly unhappy at Marvel. The reasons given for this included resentment over Stan Lee’s increasing media prominence, a lack of full creative control, anger over breaches of perceived promises by publisher Martin Goodman and at Marvel specifically for lack of credit for his story plotting, character creations and co-creations. He began to both script and draw some secondary features for Marvel, such as “The Inhumans” in Amazing Adventures, as well as horror stories for the anthology title Chamber of Darkness, and received full credit for doing so; but he eventually left the company in 1970 for rival DC Comics, under editorial director Carmine Infantino.

Spending nearly two years trying to negotiate a three year contract with the option of staying on a further two additional years. In 1970, at the age of 53, Kirby joined DC and immediately started creating a ‘Fourth World’. A trilogy of New Titles – New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People. He took on Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen because the series was without a stable creative team and he didn’t want to be responsible for losing anyone their job. The central villain of the Fourth World, Darkseid, and some other Fourth World concepts appeared in the pages of Jimmy Olsen before being launched as their own series, giving greater exposure to potential buyers. Jack Kirby remained an incredibly shrewd operator, still demonstrating the guile and forward thinking that is expected of great creative directors. Though here he was without a company, working as he had always wanted to. As a creative.

Kirby had a lasting effect on DC too, leaving characters that have recurred or consistently remained in the DC Universe, though not as centrally as the Marvel Universe. These included OMAC (seen in the Final Crisis crossover of 2009), Kamandi, The Demon, The Losers, Dingbats of Danger Street, Kobra and together with old partner Joe Simon for one last time, a new incarnation of the Sandman.

But it had to be said that rather than Kirby having Marvel blood in his veins, Marvel ran on Kirby Engine Oil and the company would always have taken him back. In 1975, Stan Lee used a Fantastic Four discussion panel to announce that Kirby was returning to Marvel. Ever the showman, Lee wrote in his monthly article ‘Stan Lee’s Soapbox’ that “I mentioned that I had a special announcement to make. As I started telling about Jack’s return, to a totally incredulous audience, everyone’s head started to snap around as Kirby himself came waltzin’ down the aisle to join us on the rostrum! You can imagine how it felt clownin’ around with the co-creator of most of Marvel’s greatest strips once more.”

Back at Marvel, Kirby both wrote and drew Captain America and created the series The Eternals, which featured a race of inscrutable alien giants, the Celestials, whose behind-the-scenes intervention in primordial humanity would eventually become a core element of Marvel Universe continuity. Kirby’s other Marvel creations in this period include Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and an adaptation and expansion of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as an abortive attempt to do the same for the classic television series, The Prisoner. He also wrote and drew Black Panther and did numerous covers across the line.

Still dissatisfied with Marvel’s treatment of him and with the companies refusal to provide health and other employment benefits, Kirby sadly left Marvel to work in animation. In that field, he did designs for Turbo Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and other animated television series. He also worked on The Fantastic Four cartoon show, reuniting him with scriptwriter Stan Lee. He illustrated an adaptation of the Walt Disney movie The Black Hole for Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales syndicated comic strip in 1979-80.

In the early 1980s, Pacific Comics, a new, non-newsstand comic book publisher, made a then-groundbreaking deal with Kirby to publish a creator-owned series Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers, and a six-issue mini-series called Silver Star which was collected in hardcover format in 2007. This, together with similar actions by other independent comics publishers as Eclipse Comics (where Kirby co-created Destroyer Duck in a benefit comic-book series published to help Steve Gerber fight a legal case versus Marvel), helped establish a precedent to end the monopoly of the work for hire system, wherein comics creators, even freelancers, had owned no rights to characters they created.
Though estranged from Marvel, Kirby continued to do periodic work for DC Comics during the 1980s, including a brief revival of his “Fourth World” saga in the 1984 and 1985 Super Powers mini-series and the 1985 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs. And in 1987, under much industry pressure, Marvel finally returned much of Kirby’s original art to him.
Kirby also retained ownership of characters used by Topps Comics beginning in 1993, for a set of series in what the company dubbed “The Kirbyverse”. These titles were derived mainly from designs and concepts that Kirby had kept in his files, some intended initially for the by-then-defunct Pacific Comics, and then licensed to Topps for what would become the “Jack Kirby’s Secret City Saga” mythos. Marvel posthumously published a “lost” Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four story, Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure (April 2008), with unused pages Kirby had originally drawn for Fantastic Four 108 (March 1971).
On February 6, 1994, Kirby died at age 76 of heart failure in his Thousand Oaks, California home. He was buried at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village, California.

Kirby’s legacy is enormous. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis crossover hinged on Kirby’s Fourth World – specifically Darkseid himself – inflicting themselves on Earth, Captain America still leads the Avengers / Ultimates in colours picked out for him by a man he could have fought in the war with. The Hulk continues to smash, the Surfer continues to glide through the Marvel Universe. Artists around the world look to Kirby’s example of steadfast, unfussy iconography, simple, effective design and dizzying compositions. A generation of Marvel artists were trained by him. But more important than that, Jacob Kurtzberg of Suffolk Street, New York City built dreams others could build upon while simply building his own. He has influenced and inspired thousands of creatives (including this one) and built a House of Ideas that millions of people continue to enjoy. Kirby is a true legend to those who know, possibly the greatest comic book artist who ever lived. Responsible for the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and The Human Torch. If they existed, all of them would have visited the grave of Jack Kirby. The Hulk would have stood in the rain over Kirby’s resting place, a giant over a small guy’s crypt and simply said ‘Goodbye Dad’. With that, the broad shouldered goliath would turn and launch himself up into the sky, disappearing into the distance. If Kirby, lying where he was could see it he’d have thought ‘Good angle, but perhaps it could be just a little tighter…’

Practitioners 46: Jim Lee

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 11, 1964 and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four, growing up in St Louis Missouri. In Lee’s St. Louis Country Day School his classmates predicted he would found hi sown comic book company. Despite this, Lee seemed resigned to following in his father’s profession of medicine, studying psychology at Princeton University, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. However, medicine’s loss was certainly going to be popular culture’s gain as Lee became one of the most influential and well known artists on the biggest selling comic book of all time. One that founded movie franchises and supported an ailing Marvel in the late ’90s and found some of the most famous comic companies in the world to rival it.

Lee’s rise to fame with Marvel Comics was inevitable as it was undeniable. In 1986, as Lee was preparing to graduate from his psychology degree, Lee took an art class that reignited his fascination with art at a time when seminal work such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen was reinvigorating the American comic book industry. With the psychology degree complete, Lee did something, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, that shows incredible courage and clarity of mind and self belief. He postponed his medical degree. The rest is without a doubt comic book history. He vowed he would return if he failed to break the comic book industry. Not something that should’ve worried him.

Submitting examples to various publishers, Lee did not see success until a New York comic book convention where he met Archie Goodwin, comic book editor (regularly cited as the ‘best loved comic book editor… ever), artist and writer who introduced him to Marvel Comics. Now it seems hard to believe that Lee was not snapped up immediately by the first commissioning editor to spot him but Lee exposes the nature of the industry. Retrospectively, artists are professional, passionate and confident in the style they work in and seem undeniable masters of their art but even the most capable artist can be subject to the pressures, misunderstandings, bad luck and bad timing of the industry. Lee began on Alpha Flight and moved over to Punisher: War Journal, his work there inspired by Frank Miller, David Ross, Kevin Nowlan and Whilce Portacio, as well as Japanese Manga.

Then came the crossing of two similar talents, one more senior than the other as Lee filled in for regular illustrator, Marc Silvestri on Uncanny X-Men 248, which was, due to positive response and Marvel’s own enthusiasm for Lee’s style followed up on issues 256 through to 258 as part of the ‘Acts of Vengeance’. The timing of this was key as X-Men, under Claremont was not only ground breaking and beautifully written at the time, it was on a meteoric rise in terms of popularity, beginning to challenge the more mainstream titles of Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Avengers. Eventually, Lee became Uncanny’s full time penciller, working for the first time with inker, Scott Williams, who would become his long time collaborator. To cement his position as an X-men innovator, Lee co-created the smooth talking mutant thief Gambit, with Chris Claremont. Lee’s popularity crystallised in these months, becoming more and more representative of what fan’s wanted. He gained increasingly greater control of the franchise and in 1991, Lee helped launch the second X-Men series, X-Men (Volume 2). He did so, not just as artist but as co-writer alongside Chris Claremont, giving the book a more broad and cutting edge feel to it’s perhaps more thoughtful predecessor. X-Men 1 was raw edged, fun comic book pinned with the wisdom and knowledge of an older and more restrained writer. Lee pushed Claremont’s boundaries while Claremont restrained the more inexperienced artist to just the right degree. The result was comic book history and rightfully so. However, Lee redesigned costumes, entirely successfully for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Psylocke and Storm as well as creating villain Russian Super Soldier Omega Red.

X-Men 1 (Vol 2) remains the best selling comic book of all time with sales of 8.1 million (and nearly £7 million). This was confirmed in a public declaration by the Guinness Book of Records at the 2010 San Diego Comic con. While one aspect of it’s success was that it was released with five different variant covers as well as a limited edition gatefold edition that revealed it all in its glory, the success was thanks to Lee’s distinctive, modern take on a fan favourite and the development of the X-Men in an exciting new direction. The variant cover trick became a weight around collector’s necks in years following with Gold and Silver foil, holograms and gatefolds every few months for some titles, but this first incarnation was about piecing together a piece of art, mass produced and available to anyone who wanted it. Only Jim Lee and perhaps one or two other legends of the industry could’ve commanded such a response.

The success of X-men saw Lee hungering even more for greater creative control over his own work, and as soon as in 1992, Lee accepted an invitation to join six other artists (Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld) who broke away from Marvel Comics to start Image Comics, which would release their own creator-owned titles. Lee’s batch of titles included Wild C.A.T.s, which Lee pencilled and co-wrote, and other series created in the same universe, including Stormwatch, Deathblow and arguably the more successful Gen13.

Lee and his close friend, Valiant Comics publisher Steve Massarsky, arranged a Valiant / Image crossover, Lee’s characters being used, alongside those of Rob Liefeild. Four central titles would exist – two from each company – in single edition format, each edition known as a colour rather than a number, plus a prologue and epilogue book. Wildstorm produced Deathmate Black, with Lee himself contributing to the writing, illustrating the covers of that book, as well as contributing to the prologue’s interior links. The assignment was given to Valiant creators against their better judgment, in particular Editor-in-chief Bob Layton, who complained about Image’s inability to meet their deadlines. Deathmate Black came out a few months after Valiant’s Blue and Yellow installments, which had come out on time, and Liefeld’s Deathmate Red was so late that Layton flew to California to procure that chapter personally, and ink it himself in an Anaheim hotel room. Layton see’s Deathmate’s lateness as one of Valiant’s ‘unmitigated disasters’ and views that project as the beginning of the spectacular collapse of the 1990s for the comic book industry. A collpase that would pull in Marvel and a collapse that comics has not, if ever, recovered from.

Wildstorm continued on, expanding it’s line to include other ongoing titles. As publisher, Lee later expanded this by creating two separate imprints for Wildstorm, Cliffhanger and Homage (to be replaced again years later to reform as a single Wildstorm Imprint, now owned by DC).

Moving back, with Rob Liefeld, to Marvel for the Heroes Reborn alternate universe storyline of the mid-late nineties, Lee was given the opportunity to plot the new Iron Man and wrote and illustrated The Fantastic Four. Both used existing storyarcs and developed them, bringing them more up to date. The innovations on these titles, however, were arguably greater than the more successful Ultimate Universe that has existed since as an Imprint of Marvel, though that is more subject to greater popularity of the industry as well as greater sophistication in art and writing in modern comic books.

Lee returned to Wildstorm, where he would publish series such as The Authority and Planetary, as well as Alan Moore’s imprint, America’s Best Comics. Lee himself wrote and illustrated a 12-issue series called Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday, in which an internet slacker inadvertently manages to download the secrets of the universe, and is thrown into a wild fantasy world.

Sourced from HERE Check out the gallery there for more awesome images. Thanks to Alexandre Bihn for the awesome scan.

In a typically astute and decisive choice, Lee sold Wildstorm to DC in 1998 because he felt that his role as publisher was interfering with his role as an artist. In an echo of the choice made many years previously, he put his calling first. In 2003, Lee collborated with Jeph Loeb for a 12 issue Batman run. Introducing a new nemesis from Batman’s past, ‘Hush’ was a tightly packed and neatly executed trip through the Bat universe. Lee’s images were sumptuous, his design work intricate, emotive and innovative. Lee, the artist, through all the pitfalls and difficulties of publishing had lost none of the values and passion he had when working on X-Men 1 more than 12 years before. He followed this up with ‘For Tomorrow’ a 12-issue story in Superman by 100 Bullets writer (and Bunker firm favourite) Brian Azzarelo, although this didn’t achieve the same level of success, Lee’s work showed a maturity and stillness that perhaps wasn’t visible in his earlier career. In 2005, Lee collaborated with Frank Miller on All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, a series plagued by delays. Lee’s work was spotless throughout, in particular a redesign of the batmobile and a gatefold image that folded out from the book itself that revealed the full scale of this Elseworld Batcave. While Lee’s contribution was near infallible, Miller’s writing was unsophisticated and cynical in most ways and alienated a great many readers. During this period, Lee returned to WildC.A.T.S with Grant Morrison. The gap between All-Star Batman and Robin 4 and 5 was one year and to date, only 1 issue of WildC.A.T.S (Vol 4 has been published. During thsi time, Lee also drew covers for the Infinite Crisis series.

Lee was named Executive Creative Director for DC Universe Online MMORPG. This was released in 2009, with Lee responsible for concept art for the project.

Lee’s meteoric rise did not falter there, as he has now taken a position alongside Dan Didio as Co-publisher of DC Comics. Despite obvious concerns, Lee maintains that this will in no way effect his capacity as a creative. He cited two projects, Dark Knight: Boy Wonder – a follow up of the Frank Miller series he had worked on and also a painted cover for Giuseppe Camuncoli’s layouts in Batman: Europa 1. Neither projects have surfaced yet. The Wildstorm imprint was officially declared ended by DC in September 2010.

With DC’s enormous revamp of it’s entire line, A-List artists were brought to the forefront to work on the most prominent titles. With a Justice League movie in discussion /pre-production at present DC was always going to put JL first in their choices of creative teams. The illustrious team of Jim Lee as penciller and Geoff Johns as writer is certainly, still, a cocktail that no true fan of the artform can ignore. If anything that is Lee’s great talent. Enduring popularity. His art work remains so fresh and clear, and so respresentative of what people want from their books – in spite of changes in the industry itself – that Lee has proven himself a Practitioner who has wandered away from the thing he is most beloved for, but like a much younger, more south east asian Peter Cook, retains a place in every fan who ever saw his work. This is testament to Lee’s enormous talent. His offers to put out projects reveals a conflict of interests that has taken him away perhaps too much in the last two decades, however he is a brave artist who pursued greater goals. Without finding ourself in the same situation who are we to say we wouldn’t pursue those same goals…. however Lee’s example is certainly a cautionary one. Swathes of exceptional artwork, pages and pages of classic comic work haven’t seen the light of day. From the top down the industry runs on one thing – putting out the best books possible. While we can never undermine someone’s right to do whatever they want – what would we have given to see more Lee?

Practitioners 41: Erik Larsen

If Simon Bisley is the Heavy Metal and Neil Gaiman the careful lyricism, Erik Larsen is the rock and roll of comic books. Bold colours, flash bang visuals, heavy weaponry, implausible chicks, nasty ass comic book violence and a great hero rising through the pile of body parts and big boobs. Creating a middle ground for those becoming disillusioned with the ‘big ones’ homogenised, careful storytelling, Larsen grinds the pulpish, the extreme and the deliberately silly and offensive together in a cathartic throw back to comics pulp heyday in an unapologetic, hedonistic and ultimately downright fun experience. Recognising that a page is an empty space, pregnant with possibilities, the only limitation – the edges of the artist and writers’ imagination.

Even in the boom days of the nineties, the average comic book geek was under the age of 12 or most likely a social pariah. To these people, escapism was characters that did what they wanted, represented ideals they believed in, got the busty girl and were never intimidated by a sky full of Martian space ships. These readers had a well developed silly bone and an understanding of pulp humour. The readership wasn’t frightened of a book that revelled in random events in the name of kitsch entertainment. This escapism saw heroes appear that were bright, bold, unremitting and smart mouthed. Cartoon heroes for Saturday morning television, made untransmittable before 10PM EST. Erik Larsen was the king of this. A master of crazy, bombastic pulp.

Larsen was born in middle America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child growing up in Bellingham, Washington and Albion, California he created several versions of a character named ‘The Dragon’, a batman like character, driving a car copied from Speed Racer’s Mach 5. Producing a fanzine with a friend which featured ‘The Dragon’ the character was developed into a character able to change using a magic word like Captain Marvel.

Taking his first paid work, working on Megaton, co-creating and illustrating a feature called ‘Vanguard’ with publisher Gary Carlson. The Dragon appeared, slightly revised in the second edition. Larsen went on to work on the Sentinels of Justice for AC Comics and DNAgents for Eclipse Comics.

His work at DC included The Outsiders, Teen Titans, Adventures of Superman and Doom Patrol. For Marvel he completed a The Amazing Spider-man fill-in story and 5 issues of the Punisher. Frankly Larsen made it look easy. Wandering from company to company, first working on incredibly diverse titles for DC and ultimately extremely high end titles for Marvel. Aside from a Nova storyline cancelled for Marvel Comics presents, his flight up the ladder at Marvel was unstoppable. Alongside his master work, as writer and artist on Savage Dragon, Larsen has found an occasional home with Marvel, returning to write and illustrate on Fantastic Four, The Defenders, Wolverine and Nova. He briefly returned to DC to write Aquaman.

Just a selection of the alternate Dragons from the incredibly wild Larsen Universe (by Art Adams)

In 1990, Todd McFarlane was leaving the title Amazing Spider-man, a title he had visually revolutionised and Larsen took over the reigns as of 329, having previously pencilled issues 287, 324 and 327. With writer David Michelinie and Larsen, the series experienced increased sales, with stories such as ‘ The Cosmic Spider-man’, ‘The Return of the Sinster Six’ and ‘The Powerless Spider-man’ that deliberately took off the gloves Spider-man had been treated with. Larsen kept pace with the extreme nature of the story lines, Mary Jane never looking sexier, the character numbers and speed and occurrence of events break neck.

It was during ‘The Return of the Sinister Six’ and before ‘The Dragon’ found his place among the comic book elite that Larsen cemented his place as a true Practitioner. During the production of the book his house was destroyed by flood. While trying to deal with this situation he never missed a page, or reduced the quality of his work – instead accepting an offer by Marvel to reduce the page numbers for two months and fill with back stories. Larsen’s enthusiasm and strength of character bled through here as the rendering of the characters and storylines never missed a beat. Doc Oc swung menacingly into view and epic conflict between multiple characters played out across page after page. Had it not been mentioned in the collected graphic novel, no one would have ever have guessed what was taken place. Not only that, but the faith and help offered by Marvel, a large corporate company, was willing to move mountains to see Larsen complete the project – such was his popularity at the time. His influence on one of the most popular books in comics history, exceptional even in a field of high selling books, places him retrospectively among the greats. But the best was still yet to come. A bawdy, violent, crazy and personally driven comic, seeing his childhood creation fall into the hands of millions of readers around the world. Image had been born under McFarlane and Larsen was going to prove a true linchpin and the very epitomy of the companies ethos. Creator owned and creator driven books were to be given an icon. And that icon was the absurdly named Savage Dragon.

Shedding ideas like an enthusiastic 8 year old, completely unafraid of running out of original material, Larsen took readers on a roller coaster ride experience. Pneumatic vixens and wild mutant monsters crowded the streets of Savage Dragon’s home town Chicago, while Larsen was the man to pull back together the Sinister Six (a combination of all the worst enemies of Spider-man) in New York for Marvel. Artist, script writer, plot and character designer – Larsen could barely contain his ideas on the page. This was what Image had been formed for and Larsen was about to take it by storm.

Seeking greater control and profit over the work they created, Larsen and six other illustrators abandoned Marvel to form Image Comics, where Larsen finally gave his childhood creation life in the form of the fin-headed, green super-cop, The Savage Dragon. This time a massively-muscled green amnesiac who joins the Chicago Police Department after being found in a burning field with no memory of how he ended up there. After a series of self-published redesigns of the character, the stripped down version of the Dragon was given a three issue limited series in 1993, expanding to a full length ongoing series completely under the control of Larsen. Astonishingly, in self-publishing, Larsen has maintained a reasonably consistent monthly schedule (excluding a couple of occasional lapses) in comparison to the other Image titles. Larsen describes Dragon as the missing like between Marvel and Vertigo, aimed at older Marvel readers ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. And in this he has pitched it perfectly. With a much more adult view, the Savage Dragon bridges the gap neatly between the teen orientated Marvel and the devoutly adult Vertigo titles.

If in any doubt as to why Larsen belongs among the hall of Practitioners, here it is. One of the brave and the bold to leave the relative safety of Marvel behind in order to self publish, Larsen’s title, The Savage Dragon, is the only title in the original line-up (besides Spawn) to still continue to exist and the only one still created by its creator. Image was built on Larsen’s ideals and he has proven that he always intended to see his dream through – marking him out as perhaps the most diligent, determined and honest creator to have left Marvel in the ’90s. Add to that his unnatural talent, enthusiasm and sense of humour and you have a natural comics talent with no time for the limitations of modern books. Larsen will continue to do it his way. Exotic women, massive guns and superheroes with Chicken heads prevail and the day Larsen stops doing that, a little light on an era that harks back to the beginning of comics will go out. Until someone finds a copy of Savage Dragon….

Practitioners 25: Mark Millar (Pt 2)

Mark Millar is a media operator, while his peers have a natural talent for recognising the effect of what they do and cross mediums in their choices of content (Morrison in particular can ascribe a lot of his success to his cinematic, literary and popular culture referencing across his comic book work) noone gives you the feeling that they’re not operating on a comic book scale – that the medium is considered too small for the individual involved. Indeed, Millar has expressed a want to break out of the confines of the comic book industry. A belligerent creative child at the heart of commercial companies, it was unlikely that the traditional and watchful Warner Bros (home of Bugs etc) would tolerate such an enfant terrible. Indeed, where novels are a breeding ground of controversial and broad opinions and a fevered battleground of freedom of speech, Millar made clear that comic books at the turn of the century enjoyed no such freedoms.

Nemesis, Superior, Hit-girl and Kick-ass (Millar's most recent characters) by Leinil-Yu

Detailed in the last part on Tuesday, there were offered a couple of examples of Millar’s run on the aggressive and controversial Authority title for Wildstorm (an imprint of DC, a subsidiary of Warner Bros). At this stage, with Millar’s Authority pouring in money from buoyant sales DC balked at the destruction of cities and high death tolls in the aftermath of 9/11. With ferocious fan interest and critical acclaim Millar’s Authority suffered an unexpected at the height of its popularity, internal editorialism. DC misjudged the mood of America. While there was shock and anger from the events in New York, networked globally, the general American was facing new realities that European, Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations had long been aware of – that their borders were no longer safe. The war machine beginning to roll into slow motion under the Bush administration, looking for targets belayed a more mature attitude in readerships in the US. A renewed awareness of their vulnerability to powers greater (or more insidious) than their own. A culture of wry and interested fatalism and assured realism was born in the wreckage of 9/11 among certain sections of American society – particularly in the more informed and connected East and West coast and in comic readership. Embryonic at the time – it is now perhaps more visible in the lack of interest in Marvel’s attempts at introducing a new Golden Age of Heroes. Finally, that period in comic books has passed and Millar represented it far better than most with his aggressive, edgy and deliberately sardonic style. DC didn’t agree and Millar began to bite at the chains that bound him, eventually swapping, following some well paid projects for Marvel, to the New York entertainment giant in 2001 to create the Ultimate Universe.

The Ultimate line was an imprint of Marvel comics introducing the Marvel Universe if it was formed today. What was created was a much more hardbitten and edgy number of heroes engaged in political, military, social and personal strife – though the imprint of Stan Lee’s original concepts of character fuelled titles was perhaps put at the bottom of the list of priorities – this was more a love letter to the movie industry and may well have instigated the wholesale redevelopment of major Marvel characters; Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers to the big screen.

To begin it was Marvel’s most commercially successful title; the X-Men that was renovated to Ultimate status. The characters now more belligerent, obstinate and teenage than Lee’s incarnations, Millar imbued them with the all-knowing arrogance of teenage Mutants. A total reboot, X-Men was the first title to begin to represent its predecessor as the title inevitably followed the numerous characters plot to the most obvious conclusion; a coherent team of mutants trying to battle the world. While recreating many of the scenarios and plots from the original series; Weapon X, the Nuclear Plant detonation from Issue 1; Millar struggled (perhaps unsurprisingly) to supersede the mainstream series, most likely because it had been the home of some of the foremost artists and writers of the previous quarter century and Marvel’s most innovative title. It was fun though, bitter and harsh at times but with a self conscious teenage cool and a moral ambiguity in the leaderships of both the X-team and the Brotherhood of Mutants (sensibly without the somewhat detrimental ‘Evil’ in the title). The title proved popular and Millar moved to expand the Universe with his incarnation of the less developed Avengers. This was to be his best move.

While all this was taking place; an independent book written by Millar and drawn by J.G. Jones was in preparation. Wanted was released in 2003-2004 and tore a hole a mile wide across conservative comics, kicking them and DC firmly into touch. The lack of belief DC had shown in its readership was proven by the success of this book; featuring a world only populated by Villains – the heroes wiped out some years previously. Opening with bisexual orgies, graphic assassinations and cheating girlfriends the protagonist secretly hates; the patented anger brewed up with the previous years of censorship came spewing out. Featuring characters like Shit-head (formed from the fecal matter of the most evil people in the history of man), Mr Rictus (a skull faced sadist) and Fuckwit (a superhero clone with Downs Syndrome), the protagonist Wesley Gibson electrocutes and rapes celebrities, kills hundreds while ingratiating himself with the Fraternity of Super-villains. It went astronomical, a readership hungry for a challenge snapping it off the shelves as quickly as possible. The intention of Millar was to create a wry and morally and ethically void space in which to populate his darkest writing to date. Ferocious, unforgiving and incredibly unapologetic Millar is every parent’s worst nightmare and every kid’s dream writer. Any book that ends with a full page spread with the central character’s top half leaning in aggressively and shouting ‘This is me fucking you in the ass!’ is to be reckoned with.

James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson in the much-toned-down movie version of Wanted (2008)

Millar is troubling for that reason – his bouts of self control working for commercial giants are interspersed with pure filth and its hard to tell who he is. The knowledge he goes to church every Sunday only deepens the confusion as he represents so little of what is good or ethical about comic books. He represents shameless populism and crowd pleasing. His thinking far deeper than content, Millar has proven, having now been given a stage big enough, that he will stop at nothing to crowd please. Although a great and powerful writer, he lacks the sensitivity and at times subtlety of peers like Morrison and Moore but will stoop as low as the public needs to. His books are the equivalent of throwing the christians to the Lions at the colliseum and feel at times like the breakdown of the medium at the same time as being the bleeding edge and the expansion of it.

His take on the Avengers, the Ultimates, represents the epitomy of modern, advanced and knowledgable writing that transcends the format of comic books and expands its reach. Where the Avengers title – holding tight throughout the nineties and naughties to its showcasing of Marvel’s most heroic and impressive characters – was losing steam, the Ultimates upped the ante and caught the popular edge of the characters within the title. What ensued is a high concept, high octane, gripping and effecting story of disparate heroes representing many fields, Military, special ops, science, media, big business, liberal politics and mainstream politics trying to get on. Brilliantly, Ultimates shows that the characters that have cooperated so effectively in their time in Avengers would create such strain amongst themselves that they represent a larger liability than the threats they pose. Effectively the tale of a political / military complex trying to justify its own existence it spends most of its time fighting off threats within its own ranks. However the set pieces, rendered beautifully by Bryan Hitch – in which the team occasionally rally to combat real threats to the world are truly monumental. There is some poignant character writing within too, most notably involving the emotionally crippled Bruce Banner and the man-out-of-time Steve Rogers.

A scene from Ultimates 1 Volume 2 (2003) by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

After 33 issues, Millar left Ultimate X-Men and wrote the number one hit title Marvel Knights Spider-Man in 2004, He also co-wrote the first six issues of Ultimate Fantastic Four with Brian Michael Bendis. He later returned to that title for a 12-issue run throughout 2005-2006, and created the Marvel Zombies spin-off title in his first and final storylines.

But it is his Millarworld movements that interest us here at Beyond the Bunker as Millar is using his considerable weight to focus the comic book industry back towards Britain. Writing Kick-Ass, while in parallel, British film makers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman made a motion picture version secured the success of both by shoring up the other. Both were british made (though Kick-ass was published as a Marvel Imprint) and have kick started a smaller, more quiet UK invasion back from the US. From the success of this Millar launched Clint, in association with Jonathan Ross and Frankie Boyle (both oddly British comedians), an anthology title in the style of 2000AD. Largely hyper-violent and named deliberately to look like the worst kind of swear word from across the room it can’t be accused of being high brow but it does appear to be working. There is no doubt that Millar’s efforts are reinvigorating the UK comic industry and whether this is sustainable is up to him and us frankly. While his motives are unclear and open to great speculation in the halls of comic conventions in the UK – he has reopened a door thought closed by being the most highly valued writer of the last ten years. His writing has excited, enthralled and challenged a very wide generation and expanded the interest in comic books to the wider population (though unfortunately not to 90s levels) but why are we putting all this on one man? Perhaps because he has proven he can handle it and come back with more. Millar might be the revolution we’ve been looking for and like all revolutions you have to applaud its effect if it moves things forwards and not linger too long on the man forcing it forwards and his motives except to applaud that he has and achieved something something special for himself and potentially for the entire UK comics industry. You can’t be bothered by Iconoclasts if you’re not an icon and within this industry that Millar is absolutely an icon for the 21st Century.

Kick-ass with his ass kicked... (Kick-ass, 2010)

Practitioners 24: John Romita Jr

John Salvatore Romita Jr or JRJR (born August 17, 1956) is an American comic book artist best known for his extensive work with solely with Marvel comics from the 1970s to present day.

Born and still living in New York city, Romita Jr is influenced heavily by the city around him and that he grew up in. Fittingly he has remained at the company that calls New York home, 367 Park Avenue South or Marvel Comics throughout his professional career and his work has become synonomous with its most famous characters. He was born to John Romita Sr, co-creator of several notable Spider-man stories in the 1960s and 1970s. In true New York style it could be said that drawing Marvel comics is the family business.

Oddly Romita Jr began his career at Marvel UK, doing sketches for covers of reprints. His American debut was with a six part story entitled ‘Chaos at the Coffee Bean!’ in Amazing Spider-man Annual 11 in 1977. At this point Romita Jr’s artwork represented the time it was being produced with clean linework and animation standard (simplified) detailing. But his characterisation and simple adjustments to the panel by panel and simple visual storytelling that was taking place then won him a lot of fans. His characters weightier and more rounded than others, his line work curvaceous and bold when necessary Romita Jr’s style was bold and easily digestible. Romita Jr is a commercial artist, offering bold and brash imagery that feeds the eye more for the same price as other artists.

Romita’s early popularity began however with his run on Iron Man with David Michelinie and artist Bob Layton which began in 1978. He was eventually offered his first regular run on Spider-man in the early 80s and was the artist that launched the Dazzler series. In this period Romita Jr co created the character of the Hobgoblin with writer Roger Stern – a kind of Green Goblin light with his own good / evil morality in play, Hobgoblin represented a genuinely unrestricted and unfamiliar goblin for Spider-man to play with.

Uncanny X-Men 304

From 1983 to 1986 he had a popular run on Uncanny X-Men, introducing the future X-man Bishop in his tenure in a brutal and distinct storyline that battered the edges of what was being done in comics at the time. Romita Jr returned to Uncanny X-Men in 1993 in which he pencilled the Fathers and Son’s crossover Uncanny issue in which Prof X and Magneto collide and Magneto has his mind removed. He depicted the turning of Colossus and his joining of the Acolytes and the showdown between Xavier and his X-Men and Magneto and his Acolytes on Asteroid M in the Fathers and Sons X-over that made history with the release of X-Men 25. Romita Jr’s work was bold, reminiscent of 50s and 60s pop art and exploded from the page in a way nobody else’s did at the time.

But prior to his second stint on Uncanny X-Men Romita was granted an extended stint on Daredevil with writer Ann Nocenti and Eisner award winning inker Al Williamson. In this period he began to develop the Romita Jr style we see now. Shoulders and shape became more developed and something significant happened… Romita Jr broke the rules…

Most artists use a series of bubbles in place of parts of the body in order to decide placement, perspective and shape. The leg would be perhaps five parts (the longer larger upper leg, the smaller oval knee joint, the slightly bannister like lower leg / shin, perhaps a round joint at the ankle joint to indicate a change of angle and an uneven tear drop shape to form the foot). You can achieve this easily with every body part and build an entire Human frame using these bags. You then pencil over it, define the shape clearly and subsume it in ink – hiding your working underneath all that.

Romita Jr doesn’t. His characters are effectively the same set of shapes inflated and deflated according to the size and shape of the character. The sawn off frame of Wolverine is the same as the tall powerful frame as Colossus. The Punisher from Romita Jr’s very cool run in Punisher: War Journal is the same shape as Wolverine. Art law says this is bad practice. That by showing your working and working from such a clear template is not art. Romita Jr has made one thing clear in the nicest possible way. He simply doesn’t give a shit. And neither should he.

Romita Jr’s success is built on these parameters. The characters represent mannequins on which Romita Jr applies the feelings and the events that are taking place around them. He applies garish, squared and diametrically even surroundings that draw in the eye and hold it there. He isn’t a naturalist or a life artist, Romita Jr is a comic artist and a purist and never an apologist.

He has built an incredible career with the same company (even his other company credits are Kick Ass – printed through Marvel’s Icon Imprint, Punisher/Batman in association with Marvel as well as DC and admittedly 1 credit with the Gray Area 1-3 in 2004 with Glen Brunswick for Image Comics). He is a class act and no freelancer – he has a job with a reputable company which he is doing well and there is no reason he should stop doing it.

Rolling out Spider-man, Avengers (most recently the new Avengers series), Black Panther, Daredevil, Iron Man, Cable, Punisher, The Eternals, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men, Ultimate Vision, Wolverine, Sentry and pretty much the only thing worth picking up World War Hulk for by ingraining it with such force and mind-bending power on each that it was a joy to behold.

The fact is with Romita Jr, you can see the workings but you can also see the most basic rules of comic book art. Clean lines reminiscent of the 60s era in comic books, graphic and bold line work that still belongs on an Andy Warhol Pop art wall hanging. Romita Jr is keeping historic conventions alive and kicking in his work. If you look at his work you can still see the influence of Ditko and his dad, Romita Jr and the reason that everything we see in comic books today comes from it. I hope Romita Jr remains at Marvel for a great many years.

He’ll be attending the Kapow Comicon in London on April 9-10th and I hope to catch him there. My work isn’t much like his but frankly I think that’s because I’m not sure I’ve fully learned how to draw comics.

Practitioners 23: Leinil Yu

Leinil Francis Yu (born July 31, 1977) is a filipino comic book artist, working, prominently, in the American Comic Book market.

In an in interview published in Mavel’s Daily Bugle Newsletter, he has described his style as ‘Dynamic Pseudo-realism.’ This seems fair as his grasp on Human anatomy is compounded by his considerable capacity for presenting it kicking ass!! His compositions are always wild and aluring, appearing spontaneous and explosive but within a moment present a much more impressive grasp on detailing and nuance that imbeds the image with more natural feeling. Its a circular effect that feeds both aspects of his style and zeroes in on minute detail in mad action sequences.

Leinil Francis Yu was first recognised after winning Wizard’s Drawing Board Contest, his first published work. Signed up initially by Whilce Portacio to do some work for Wildstorm, that work fell through unexpectedly. Portacio passed on Yu’s work to Marvel who immediately hired him to take on the Ol’ Canucklehead himself, Wolverine in one of its flagship titles. Few artists have catapulted so quickly to the forefront of one of the largest comic companies in the world but the decision was well justified. Yu’s combination of one-two knock out action sequences and ferocious line work gave him considerable notoriety among fans. Mostly positive, his loose lined inking style drew a more scattered and abstract look from his work which more story minded readers struggled to get to grips with. Artistically however, this was powerful, forceful stuff, the more vivacious line work offering more emotional punch to the action, communicating more than the panel might have with a more steady hand. Innovative work however can polarise and while many more were drawn to Leinil’s unique style some were put off (Dan Thompson of BTB for one).

Following his run on Wolvcerine he moved on to work on Marvel’s flagship X-Men title in 2000, written by legendary X-scribe Chris Claremont. Yu blazed a trail with his pen through the upper echelon of Marvel titles such as Fantastic Four, Ultimate Wolverine Vs Hulk and New Avengers working with the foremost creators. In the same period he co-created High Roads with writer Scott Lobdell at Cliffhanger, Superman: Birthright with Mark Waid and Silent Dragon with Andy Diggle at DC Comics.

Individual legends of the medium were queuing up, most likely to see their character drawn in the Yu style. It was different than what had been seen before and his wave of effect can be seen across the comic book fermament. New artists now offer greater naturalism and can apply more artistic flare perhaps following the arrival of Leinil Yu. His artwork representing a higher plateau of draftsmanship in mainstream comics, augmenting the existing standard into visceral and at times abstract line work. Movement depicted in high detail, not with cross hatching but with disparate, fractal scattered lines sometimes following the line of air across a moving figure or to emphasise effort and movement, light and shadow.

Leinil Yu worked on the edgy incarnation of the Avengers with New Avengers, featuring perhaps for the first time a team of outsiders to the Marvel Universe, Dr Strange, Luke Cage, Spider-man, Hawkeye (now Ronin), Jessica Drew and Echo (from Daredevil). His work matched well the disparate, kinetic and edgy nature of these characters and his line work became more clean and commercially accessible perhaps than before. Somehow, rather than being a shame it enhanced Leinil’s work and certainly broadened his appeal. His work on Marvel’s New Avengers finished with issue 37 so he could begin with Secret Invasion with New Avengers writer Brian Michael Bendis. Secret Invasion involved every major character in the Marvel Universe pitched against an insidious Skrull invasion. His depiction of the Marvel cast against the highly individual Skrull warriors makes clear how good Yu is. More than 100 figures occupy a double page spread and Yu’s composition maintains speech bubbles coherently keeping the various battle cries and Bendis’ dialogue functional and understandable throughout.

Leinil Yu continues to go from strength to strength and has now matched luminaries like Romita Jr, both Kuberts and Epting as synonomous with quality and unflappable content no matter the requirement. Though he carries more zest and raw vigour than the afore-mentioned artists he still instills the same values in his artwork. His work is reminiscent of sketch works by Master artists at the same time as encapsulating what makes a legendary comic artist.