Practitioners 54: J H Williams III

It’s back!! Practitioners, our weekly article featuring the people who made the comics industry, went on a three month away day while we continued to complete Moon but it’s now back!! Practitioners will now be bi-weekly, while every second week on Tuesday Practitioners Reloaded will present the previous 1 – 53 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo) and then continue to showcase all the new articles until we’ve written a comprehensive history of the comic book industry!! Or die.

James ‘Jim’ H. Williams III, usually credited as J.H. Williams III, is a comic book artist and a penciller, best known for his work on titles such as Promethea (with Alan Moore), Desolation Jones (with Warren Ellis) and Batwoman (with W. Haden Blackman).

J H Williams is a master of his art and others aside. Most Practitioners have a near-complete grasp of the comics page, panel to panel storytelling, placement and composition. Most pages produced for comic books are purpose built as little more than a rendition of a writers words and descriptions. J H Williams III limits himself to nothing, challenging himself to extrapolate only the most complex compositions in the history of comics without losing control of plotting, pacing or flow. Bleeding edge double page spreads, multiple styles and techniques combining into both unique and familiar page styles. Able to mimic the most prominent and recognisable legends in comic book history, while able to seamlessly drop into his more comfortable naturalistic style, Williams has defined himself as a master draftsman and a timeless artist.

Williams’ early work includes pencilling the four-issue miniseries, Deathwish (1994-1995) from Milestone Media, a company founded to present a platform for characters of ethnic minority, the most famous of these Hardware, Icon, Blood Syndicate and Static. Deathwish – tag line: ‘Paint the Town Dead’ – was a dark number, featuring Wilton Johnson, the victim of a brutal family raping from which only he survived. Appearing in Hardware six times, the series was notable for it’s use of a pre op transexual, obsessed with sex related crimes, as it’s protagonist. It also featured the exclamation ‘Fuck art! Let’s dance!’ at the close of the third issue. This was a dark and distinctive introduction to comics for J H, the artwork visceral, savagely brutal, anarchic and powerfully emotive, Deathwish presented as a damaged, frightening and unpredictable figure – rendered powerful with extremely tight line work from Williams. It’s hard to imagine a more fringe entrance to the popular comics industry but JH held nothing back and presented himself as a strong contender. Written by Adam Blaustein, Deathwish has disappeared into the murky comic book back catalogue but JH Williams III was to plough on to handle some of the most challenging and venerated comics in the industry (most often thanks to his art work). It also gave Williams the chance to work with legendary inker and Joe Quesada partner, Jimmy Palmiotti.

But it was on the short-lived 10-issue (including a special 1,000,000 issue) Chase title, with writer Dan Curtis Johnson that he came to prominence. Based on a character, Cameron Chase, that appeared in Batman #550 in January 1998, it followed Chase as an agent of the Department of Extranormal Operations tasked with monitoring and neutralising Metahuman threats to national security. The blend of the extreme metahumans and the noirish, dark edged naturalism made Chase a moderate hit for fans of fine comic art, J H Williams’ involvement perhaps elongating the short run. Never the less, it was here that J H Williams entered the DC firmament and began to make creative ripples throughout the industry.

Even then, at the start of his main career, J H Williams III demonstrated all of the skills that have made him a watchword for both wild experimentation and paradoxically professional reliability of quality. Every page bled with the precise representation of the writer’s ideas somehow locked seamlessly between naturalism and comic book fantasy. Anchoring the content with a powerful grasp of expression, anatomy, light and composition, JH Williams III draws in the reader, pacifying their expectations with beautifully accessible detail while introducing dizzying and brave compositions.

Williams collaborated with inker Mick Gray on two DC Elseworlds graphic novels, Justice Riders – in which the Justice League of America are recast as western figures – written by Chuck Dixon and Son of Superman, written by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman. Justice Riders would likely inform Williams’ interest in drawing wild west heroes, as they appear again in the later Seven Soldier’s series bookends (written by Grant Morrison) and a single issue of Jonah Hex (#35) on which Williams said “I certainly want to do more issues myself or even a graphic novel if the opportunity and schedule presented itself.”

It was with another of DC’s most famous writers – the legendary Alan Moore – that JH Williams was to find yet greater prominence, both as an interior and cover artist, with the utterly glorious Promethea (32 issues, 1999–2005). It was here that Williams’ now legendary capacity to twist the logic of a comic book page really took hold. Taking first of all the poetic and holistic plots and scripts of Mr. Moore, JH Williams treated every page (or double page) as single images, and rather than simply breaking them into neatly compartmentalised shot boxes, expanded the use of the form in a way most artists would never think to. Some panels were simply single figures occupying space centrally in the page, events, language and conversations rotate around specific images at the heart of the image, where panel work took place in more conventional ways, large, iconic panels drew the scene effortlessly across the top of a double page spread, making the remaining panels parts of that larger image. A dramatic understanding of fable, fantasy, ancient historical and the art nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha, popular with other legendary artists such as Joe Quesada and Adam Hughes, permeates the indelible world of Promethea. Notably, it wasn’t Moore that walked away with as many accolades as Williams, Moore taking considerable criticism at the suggestion that Promethea was acting as a mouthpiece for his religious beliefs while praise was heaped on the series for the beauty of it’s artwork and innovation regarding the medium itself. It is there that Williams excels, breaking tradition and standards perhaps unitentionally layed down at the birth of early comic books and again indirectly cemented by the unquestionable work of Kirby, Ditko, Gibbons – even Otomo through the popularity of their work.

But Williams isn’t trying to change the industry. His work isn’t a clarion call to other artists to try to do the same. Should too many try, comics would most likely become a chaotic mess. Williams’ work is innate and personal to him, a style and level of detail and naturalism that comes from pure, raw talent. His work is a treat. His is the Art Deco print amongst the Metallica posters. It flatters the owner and offers a beautiful and enlightening alternative to the great and beloved standard.

Detective Comics with writer Greg Rucka gave birth to the series that will leave JH Williams III in the upper echelons of comics practitioners. In the wake of the loss of the title character, ‘Detective’ Batman was absent in the aftermath of Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, causing the title to focus on Rucka’s Batwoman. Williams has returned as an artist and now writer of the new Batwoman series, accompanied by co-author W. Haden Blackman. Using all of the talents and skills from his previous work, Williams has formed a title of delicate and volatile beauty. Batwoman, shock of sharp red hair and porcelain white skin, is an even more distinct figure perhaps than Clark Kent when not Superman, and should be easily recognisable in the bat suit as the only person in Gotham with no pigment on their skin. None of this matters though, as a languishing presence of a child-stealing spirit of a bereaved mother haunts the waterways of Gotham. Blending dizzying but easily maneouvrable double page spreads with fine art, profound expressionism, watercolour, pencil line, ink and hand drawn finishes entwined with a haunting, feminine and original story line, Batwoman ticks a lot of boxes. It is, of course, Williams’ unerring pages that draw the real attention. Williams seems to have come full circle from his days on Deathwish – pushing the boundaries of sexuality (Batwoman is one of only a few prominent gay characters in comics – of which she is perhaps the most prominent) and using the backstreets, slums and sidewalks as his backdrop – JH Williams remains, for now, a million miles from the twisting reality of the Promethea universe, the hardy western violence of Jonah Hex or a thousand miles at least from the old swamp hut where ancient beings redesign reality, visited by I, Spyder in Morrisons’ crazy Seven Soldiers bookends.

Able to mimic Kirby, Simone Bianchi (Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight), Cameron Stewart (Seven Soldiers: Manhattan Guardian), Ryan Sook (Seven Soldiers: Zatanna), Frazer Irving (Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch Boy), Pascal Ferry (Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle), Yanick Paquette (Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer) and Doug Mahnke (Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein) in order to combine the varied strings of Morrison’s seven different titles stylistically and draw them to a very specific close in his own style. Given that that style involves pages made up of puzzle pieces, whole newspaper pages, Western scenes involving giant spiders, world twisting imagery and the destruction of the end of the Sheeda, a devilish Hybrid civilisation born from the remnants of the Human society it’d be a crisis for almost any other artist – though a challenge many will take on. But a man like JH Williams III, it appears that it’s terrifyingly par for the course.

At present, a talent unlike any other in the comics industry, which in an industry built on clear principles and methodology, only highlights just how special the third JH Williams really is….

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Practitioners 51: Stuart Immonen

Stuart Immonen is a Canadian comic book artist, best known for his work on Nextwave, Ultimate X-Men, The New Avengers and Ultimate Spider-man. Teamed usually with the elegantly named Wade Von Grewbadger, Immonen is responsible for some of the most memorable page layouts of the last decade as he effortlessly combines composition, characterisation and razor blade lettering to allow any script writer’s ideas to flow.

Immonen was, until recently, a hidden master in the recesses of the comic industry. In recent years – working on New Avengers, Ultimate Spider-man and the most recent Marvel event Fear Itself in which he was lead penciller on the main series at the core – Immonen has found his rightful place among the most recognisable artists in the industry. With an ice cool approach to complicated and original compositions Immonen has an amazing reputation for taking complex ideas and communicating them effortlessly out of the page.

Studying at Toronto’s York University, Immonen pursued a career in art immediately. In 1988, he self published a series called Playground. It was his frst published work. He progressed quickly, working at several small comic book companies before being hired by DC Comics, and most recently (since 1993), Marvel Comics, where he gained greater notoriety. In this time he had handled some of the biggest names in the industry – fictionally speaking. At DC his clean line work introduced Immonen to the great kryptonian and DC flagship, Superman. He remained with Superman for some time though more on the fringe of the associated titles – contributing to multiple artist titles such as Superman Metropolis Secret Files, Superman Red / Superman Blue and Superman: The Wedding Album. His posting on Legion of Superheroes gave him a chance to practice the combination of multiple characters in a range of compositions – something that would prove his defining characteristic later in the industry.

But it’s Immonen’s adventures in Marvel that everyone began to notice – handling the most characterful figures in the universe – with a run on Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men with the newest and coolest writers of the time Warren Ellis and Brian K. Vaughn – both of whom enjoy lightweight, dialogue heavy scriptwriting. It was the deliberately outside continuity in-joke Next Wave that Immonen had the greatest impact.

A re-teaming with Ellis saw a highly collabrative approach to the book, with Immonen given the opportunity to stretch his creative muscle. A rag tag batch of fringe characters from many of the Marvel books; Monica Rambeau, the former Captain Marvel; Tabitha Smith, Boom Boom of X-Force; Aaron Stack, the Machine Man, monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone; and new character the Captain previously called Captain ☠☠☠☠ (the obscured words being so horrible that Captain America allegedly “beat seven shades of it out of him” and left him in a dumpster with a bar of soap in his mouth).

Nextwave's unambiguous cover for the Marvel Civil War Crossover event of 2006

Into this chaotic and satirical book Ellis leaned heavily on Immonen’s pencilling style – almost every edition in the 12 issue run a master class in humorous, action filled perfection. Every quirk and idea was beautifully realised. When Fin Fang Foom unceremoniously passes Machine Man it is both perfectly drawn and hilariously realised. Immonen’s panels in which the Captain beats the living hell out of Suicide Girl loving demi-daemon of a pervo elseworld, Dormmu was so well realised that Dormmu became a surprise bonus character in last year’s Marvel vs Capcom to everyone’s significant joy!

But more than that – in a later book Immonen demonstrated his absolute mastery of multiple styles. As the Forbush man overwhelmed the senses of the assembled Next Wave each was presented with their own versions of reality. Leaping seamlessly between the Captain’s naturalistic, paired down artwork on a faraway world, Captain Marvel’s transluscent trip out, seemingly influenced by African American art styles of the late 70s and early 80s, from Machine Man’s Garfieldesque adventures as an Insurance agent to Elsa Bloodstone’s battle against ancient monsters in a perfect recreation of Mike Mignola’s legendary work on Hellboy. All were simultaneously equal to the art they were satirising while distinctly mocking in style. The balance was met beautifully in a way that can only be understood when viewed.

All of this was recognised by Ellis on the run of the book. Taking the highly rare decision to allow effective free reign over a series of no less than 5 double page spreads in which a series of increasingly deranged battles ensued between the Nextwave team and a procession of bizarre choices for soldiers, launched by the H.A.T.E. corporation. This included a Brontosaurus, Battle Tigers, Two headed Samurai, Elvis MODOKs, Golems and spike-wheeled Steven Hawking’s as well as a number of other characters – some too difficult to accurately describe. The end result was an absolute unalloyed joy. Page after page of freewheeling battle lunacy, deftly executed with pin point accuracy and frankly joyous abandonment of any convention.

It is rare that any artist is given the opportunities that Immonen was with Nextwave but very few artists can inspire the sort of confidence that Immonen clearly inspired in Ellis on that book. Whether it was intended to be, it was either a showcase for Immonen’s abilities or one that Immonen refused to let pass. Most likely, given Immonen’s relaxed style he merely did exactly what the project called for.

Comics, Controversy and Joe Quesada. Full Kapow Guest List Announced!

Ever since London Super Comic Con announced Stan Lee as their guest of honour, all eyes have been on the UK’s other big cons to see how they would respond. Well, the first retaliatory shot in the (largely imaginary) battle for convention guest supremacy has now been fired as Kapow Comic Con announced today that Marvel Chief Creative Officer, Joe Quesada will head up their own guest list. Now in its second year, the Mark Millar fronted convention is seen by many as the closest match (in terms of style) to the new born LSCC, so a lot of people have been very excited to see what kind of guest list Millar’s team would pull out in the face of LSCC’s behemoth of a line-up.

As well as serving as Editor in Chief for 10 years, during which time he masterminded much of the modern Marvel universe, Joe Quesada is also a hugely celebrated artist in his own right. A feature that we ran back in October, collecting a selection of his “building the cover” tweets, remains our highest ranking post (largely due to Joe himself being kind enough to give us a shout out on twitter and facebook). While he may not be a household name in the way Stan Lee is, Joe Q is a massive guest in comic book terms and a lot of fans are going to be very happy indeed about this announcement.

Other guests announced for the show include Warren Ellis (another good catch as he’s a relatively infrequent convention attendee), Frank Quitely, Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr (who apparently wrote some stuff for CLiNT Magazine). It’s not a list devoid of controversy (it is a Mark Millar project after all) and the failure (once again) to feature any female creators is unlikely to do Kapow any favours when it comes to silencing some of their more vocal critics (the con has been accused of deliberate sexism in the past). Likewise packing the top of the bill with stand up comedians while relegating writers and artists to the lower rungs could be seen as something of a cynical move for a convention that claims to be all about the comics. On the whole though, it’s a pretty solid line up and the majority of fans should be pretty happy.

If you want to learn more about Joe Quesada’s work then you can check out his Practitioner’s article and you can buy tickets for Kapow itself from their website.

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Practitioners 49: Jack Kirby (Part Two)

With World War II underway, Editor – In-Chief Liebowitz antcipated that Kirby and his partner Joe Simon would be drafted, so both Kirby and Simon employed writers, inkers, letterers and colourists in a order to create a year’s worth of material. Kirby was drafted into the army on June 7, 1943. After basic training at Camp Stewart, near Atlanta, Georgia, he was assigned to Company F of the 11th Infantry. He landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on August 23, 1944. two and a half months after D-Day though the man himself claimed to have arrived 10 days after. Kirby recalled that one lieutenant, upon learning that he had a comic artist under his command, assigned him the position of scout who would push forward the advance into new towns and draw reconnaissance maps and pictures. This means that Kirby was not just front line but beyond the front line – in potentially enemy heavy territory and completely exposed without heavy armed support. A job most would have expected to keep someone safe and sound had at this point put Kirby in one of the most dangerous positions in the world.

Kirby and his wife corresponded from Europe via V-mail (doubly secure method to communicate with soldiers abroad, known as Victory mail), with Roz sending him ‘a letter a day’ while she worked in a lingeries shop with her mother in Brooklyn. During the winter 1944, Kirby suffered severe frostbite on his lower extremities and was flown to hospital in London from the front line, for recovery. Doctor’s considered amputating Kirby’s legs, but Kirby pulled through and recovered fully from the frostbite. Finally, in January 1945, with the final push into Germany and with the Japanese conflict nearing, unexpectedly, a harrowing end, Kirby was returned to the United States. Assigned to Camp Butner in North Carolina, where he spent the last six months of his service as part of the motor pool. Kirby was honourably discharged as a Private First Class on July 20, 1945 having received a Combat Infantryman Badge and a European/ African / Middle Eastern Theatre ribbon with a bronze battle star.

After returning from the army and after the birth of his first daughter, Susan, born on December 6, 1945, Simon arranged for work and Kirby and himself at Harvey Comics. Throughout the early 195Os, the pair created titles such as the Boy Explorers Comics, the kid-gang Western Boy’s Ranch, the superhero comic, Stuntman and catching a ride on the first bout of 3-D movies, Captain 3-D. They also freelanced for Hillman periodicals(the crime fiction comic Real Clue Crime) and for Crestwood Publications (Justice Traps the Guilty). Simon and Kirby were naturals at identifying the next big things – or the current thing – and putting out books that appealed to the widest audience. They were commercial operators but were capable enough to convert this into exciting, entertaining and gripping story lines and innovative and original characters. That capacity to react and adjust kept them at the top of the game, competitive as it was, with so many publishers vying for a majority of the audience.

But it’s biggest success was with Romance comics, the ‘mature’ interpretation of MacFadden Publications’ Young Romance. Stipulating that they would take no money up front, Kirby and Simon made an agreement with Crestwood General Manager Maurice Rosenfield with the agreement of publishers Teddy Epstein and Mike Bleier agreed. Young Romance #1 (Oct 1947) ‘ became Joe and Jack’s biggest success in years’ selling 92% of it’s print run, encouraging Crestwood to increase the print run by a third by the third issue. Becoming monthly within a few issues, Young Romance spawned a spin-off, Young Love – together selling 2 million copies a month. Following this with Young Brides in Love, Simon and Kirby had struck it once again, this time featuring ‘full length romance stories.’ Publishers such as Timely, Fawcett, Quality and Fox Feature Syndicate followed suit with their own romance titles. In spite of the increased competition, the Simon & Kirby originals continued to sell millions of copies a month, which allowed Kirby to buy a house for his family in Mineola, Long Island New York.

Kirby’s second child, Neal, was born in May 1948. His third child, Barbara, was born in November 1952.
Bitter that Timely Comics’ 1950s iteration, Atlas Comics, had relaunched Captain America in a new series in 1954, Kirby and Simon created Fighting American. Simon recalled, “We thought we’d show them how to do Captain America”. While the comic book initially portrayed the protagonist as anti-Communist, Simon and Kirby turned the series into a superhero satire with the second issue, in the aftermath of the Army-McCarthy hearings and the public backlash against the Red-baiting McCarthy. But the initial formula proved too strong to compete with, Captain America continuing unabated. This still remained a feather in Simon and Kirby’s caps, effectively beaten by the strength of their own character design. Fighting American would prove too unoriginal to survive the ages.

Fighting American sniffs out a Commie - something quickly reversed in response to the anti-communist McCarthy Trials

At the urging of a Crestwood salesman – in a remarkably questionable move against his own firm that should’ve seen him fired – Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications – using a distribution deal with Leader News. In late 1953 / early 1954, using work space subletted from their friend Al Harvey of Harvey Publications they set about bringing out four titles; Western Bullseye: Western Scout, the war comic Foxhole; with the added benefit of being written by actual veterans; In Love; since their earlier comics in the same vein were so popular and the crime comic Police Trap. All infinitely cool to a specific audience, three out of four specifically male young men they had it tied up – looking as though they’d covered all the bases. Frankly books like those out now would see figures in a crowded market of superhero books begging for something different but at the time it was the formula that worked. However, it was only to last for little more than a year. Republishing reworked artwork from Crestwood, Crestwood refused to pay them. After a review of Crestwood’s finances, Kirby and Simon’s attorney made it clear that they were owed $130,000 over the past seven years. Crestwood capitualted and paid them $10,000 in addition to their recent delayed payments. Now, at the peak of their popularity as a creative team – the relationship was becoming strained. Simon left the industry for a career in advertising but Kirby never waivered from his original course. The loss of his writing partner was not enough to make him reconsider his role and he moved on with his usual friendly shrug. “He wanted to do other things and I stuck with comics,” Kirby recalled in 1971. “It was fine. There was no reason to continue the partnership and we parted friends.”

At this point in the mid-1950s, Kirby made a temporary return to the former Timely Comics, now known as Atlas Comics, the direct predecessor of Marvel Comics. Inker Frank Giacoia had approached editor-in-chief Stan Lee for work and suggested he could “get Kirby back here to pencil some stuff.” While also freelancing for National Comics, the future DC Comics, Kirby drew 20 stories for Atlas from 1956 to 1957: Beginning with the five-page “Mine Field” in Battleground #14 (Nov.1956), Kirby penciled and in some cases also inked (with his wife, Roz) and wrote stories of the Western hero Black Rider, the Fu Manchu-like Yellow Claw, and more. But in 1957, distribution troubles caused the “Atlas implosion” that resulted in several series being dropped and no new material being assigned for many months. It would be the following year before Kirby returned to the nascent Marvel.

An unusual punishment for a villain in Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown

For DC around this time, Kirby co-created with writers Dick and Dave Wood the non-superpowered adventuring quartet the Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase #6 (Feb. 1957), while also contributing to such anthologies as House of Mystery. During 30 months freelancing for DC, Kirby drew slightly more than 600 pages, which included 11 six-page Green Arrow stories in World’s Finest Comics and Adventure Comics that, in a rarity, Kirby inked himself. Kirby recast the archer as a science-fiction hero, moving him away from his Batman-formula roots, but in the process alienating Green Arrow co-creator Mort Weisinger.

He also began drawing a newspaper comic strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, written by the Wood brothers and initially inked by the unrelated Wally Wood. Kirby left National Comics due largely to a contractual dispute in which editor Jack Schiff, who had been involved in getting Kirby and the Wood brothers the Sky Masters contract, claimed he was due royalties from Kirby’s share of the strip’s profits. Schiff successfully sued Kirby. Some DC editors also had criticized him over art details, such as not drawing “the shoelaces on a cavalryman’s boots” and showing a Native American “mounting his horse from the wrong side.”

Kirby was demonstrating his incredible capacity to churn out enormous bodies of work. The criticism levelled at him was never stylistic, his style proving opiates to the waiting masses. As he drew it they were being snapped up. While there are lessons to be learned from Kirby it is a very different industry now. But the requirement for precision and composition has never moved. While books have become more naturalistic and austere in their approaches in recent years – taking such enormous pride in their production, perhaps at the cost of their accessability – there has always been a basic principle that Kirby understood. Story telling. A child on the streets of New York, Chicago or London was never fussed about a cheek bone out of place or the referencing of an engine being incorrect. Most readers of an age to truly enjoy comics as they were intended at the time wanted images that’d bounce them from panel to the next, ping ponging their eyeballs with clear, effecting and memorably indelible feats of strength, magic and wonder. Kirby was effectively a creative machine at this stage – almost the factory robot he had tried not to be at Fleischer, though, perhaps with the greater autonomy that he would never have had there. The rate at which he was working was phenomenal. Modern artists should take note (myself included) on the level of ficus and drive needed to keep hat going and strike deadlines time after time after time.

Having left DC Comics, Kirby began freelancing with Atlas. Because of the poor pay rates, Kirby would sit for hours daily at his drawing table at home, producing eight to ten pages of work a day. His first published work at Atlas was a cover and complete seven page story ‘I discovered the secret of Flying Saucers’ in Strange Worlds #1 (Dec. 1958). Initially working now with Christopher Rule as his regular inker, and later Dick Ayers, drew continued to work across genres, romance comics to war comics, crime stories to westerns but began to make his mark specifically on a series of Super-natural fantasy and science fiction stories featuring giant, drive-in-movie style monsters such as Groot (who made a shock reappearence in Erik Larsen’s Revenge of the Sinister Six in the early nineties in Spider-man, the Thing from Planet X; Grottu, King of the Insects and most famously Fin Fang Foom, Alien hybrid space dragon adapted into the Iron Man canon and now famous as Marvel’s classic beast of beasts. Rarely seen, Fin Fang Foom was last seen in Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s madcap non-continuity-made-continuity escapade Nextwave in 2006. Through the titles such as Amazing Adventures, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and World of Fantasy, Kirby was now unbeknownst to him generating waves of creativity that he would carry on into the future. The sheer number of characters, scenarios and adventures he was bringing to life were incredible. The standard of these at such a rate would be questionable at best if it not were for one thing…

After freelancing even for Archie Comics, reuniting himself with Joe Simon to help develop the series The Fly and The Double Life of Private Strong (even drawing some issues of Classics Illustrated it was with Marvel Comics, with writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee that Kirby would get into his stride with Superhero comics. Kirby was about to introduce the world to the most popular and consistently successful set of comic book characters the world had ever seen.

Fantastic Four #1 was only a few weeks away….

Next: The Age of Marvels Begins.

Practitioners 25: Mark Millar

We here at Beyond the Bunker hope to list the greatest and best creatives in the history of comic books. In a continuing series (available every week on Tuesday) the most innovative, inspirational and important comic book visionaries will be appearing here. Check on the link below to see if one of your favourites has been included yet.

Mark Millar (born December 24, 1969) and is a Scottish Comic book writer. Millar was the highest selling comic-book writer working in America in the 2000s.

Millar was born in Coatbridge on Christmas Eve, 1969 in Scotland and now lives in Glasgow. In case you figured that this goliath of writing formed at the writing desk the beginning of his career was as a teenage fan. Millar was inspired to become a comic book writer following a meeting with Alan Moore (creator of V for Vendetta, Tom Strong, Watchmen and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) at a signing session at AKA Books and Comics when he was a teenager in the 1980s. It was not until experiencing financial problems after his parents died that he chose to leave University and become a professional writer. This tragic turn of his life and the introduction to writing as a result presents evidence of what made Millar different from many creatives. Upon suffering financial difficulty he understood that for someone determined and capable enough, writing of comic books could potentially represent a career.

His first job as a comic book writer was while he was still attending school, with Trident’s Saviour with Daniel Valley on art duties. Saviour was one of the most popular titles produced by Trident, mixing, even at that age a postmodernist blend of religion, satire and superhero action in the mix that Millar would become known for on later titles.

During the 1990s, Millar joined the creative team on 2000AD, Sonic the Comic and Crisis. In 1993, Grant Millar, Grant Morrison and John Smith presented a controversial 8-week run called the Summer Offensive in the pages of 2000AD. Morrison and Millar created a street pugilist in the chaviest sense in the pug faced Big Dave, xenophobic, ignorant, thug like man mountain who pummelled and battered his way through absurd and uniquely British threats to civilisation not the least of which a replacement boot-leg robot royal family which he battered blithely into submission to save the British isles. The first part (prog 842) saw Big Dave go up against Saddam Hussein trying to take over the world and turn everyone into ‘poofs’ with the aid od some scary aliens. Terry Waite helps him.

This mental blend of faith in your readership to get the joke, populist WAM BAM and whip crack satire and lack of fear of diving unceremoniously into the draker side of the human psyche (frankly where we are more interesting) is what set Millar apart from all the rest. Even Morrison can often loop back away from pure cynicism but Millar sees the scars in society and picks at them making him a gritty, brave and challenging writer. Which may be why he finally converted Captain America into a soldier who doesn’t kill to a one man weapon of mass destruction with a moral code firmly fixed on the defence of the weak.

Millar’s British work inevitably caught the attention of DC Comics and 1994 Millar was offered the traditional proving ground of new talent and Moore’s most sentimental character tenure some years before, Swamp Thing. Morrison aided with first four-issue run of the title to settle Millar into the title. Predictably however, while Millar’s work on Swamp Thing gained critical credit it continued to perform poorly and the series was cancelled by DC not long after Millar’s introduction. Millar continued to work on DC titles (aided occassionally by Grant Morrison – an unusual arrangement for an established writer – on titles such as JLA, The Flash and Aztek: The Ultimate Man) and working on unsuccessful pitches for the publisher. In the same period, Millar was speaking publicly and candidly about abandoning comics and had begun to mention a horror series named Sikeside for Channel 4. Sikeside was cancelled in pre-production and has recently been optioned by Crab-apple productions for a planned theatrical release.

However, with the ’90s closing down behind him, unceremoniously and with little advancement the decade in which Millar will find his niche and launch Millar into the limelight began. In 2000, Millar recived his big break replacing Warren Ellis on The Authority for DC’s Wildstorm imprint. Assigned with Morrison cohort Frank Quitely to the title, The Authority launched into a more polemic style while continuing Ellis’ original big screen, broad and boundless ideals for the title. This was a team now that wouldn’t tolerate the small minded or the morally dubious powers on earth traditionally ignored by other Superheroes. Now – under Millar the Authority truly represent exactly that – unforgiving, resilient and willing to absolutely do all that is necessary to stop that which they see as wrong. The more severe and militant characters were now brought forwards as the main focus, the Midnighter even more savage and militantly cold, contentedly torturing through electrocution the former Doctor while mysteriously managing to present an entirely different image to the passing guards in a super villain prison at the end of time.

In one short scene, the newly empowered Doctor, having been handed elemental powers over creation in return for restoring the Earth to its former self overwhelms one of the female characters, the Engineer in one of the darkly subtle and emotionally affecting ways ever written in comics. The Engineer is capable of morphing technological acroutements to deal with almost any situation and presents a difficult physical threat to overwhelm for the Doctor. Until the Doctor reminds her of a medical professional at her school as a young girl who kissed her on the back of the neck while they were alone in the school nurse’s office. It is the Doctor, having travelled back, killed the nurse and planted his lips on a vulnerable and undressed little girl – leaving her with ‘a funny feeling you’d carry around for the rest of your natural life.’ This is achieved in three panels. The effect on the reader lasts significantly longer than it does on the Engineer, as a character already referred to as a genocidal maniac tips over into a more insidious and familiar evil. A hero is only as impressive as the enemy he/she overwhelms and Millar is uniquely ambiguous enough in his writing to allow his enemies to represent the worst kind of evil.

He takes this to one hell of a conclusion; because if the threat is overwhelmingly total and unremmiting what need is there for soldiers, warriors and heroes to maintain outdated and realistically outmoded perceptions of moralism in the face of global or personal threats. For thousands of years – as civilisation has prospered and gained increasingly ethical and moral positions, it has always been defended by those willing to push through the boundaries of acceptable conflict. The Second World War heroes were not made from pacifism or saving cats from trees – they were born sadly by meeting carnage and horror with strength, bravery and a willingness to push back just as hard as they were being pushed. From this idea, what would a Captain America realistically forged in the battlefields of Northern Europe and the Pacific be? A pacifist believer in all Human rights or an efficient and exacting defender of the American way. With the creation of the Ultimates – a modern and frankly more realistic interpretation of Marvel’s most iconic American hero would step to the front of the fray, at the forefront of one of the most popular series in the history of comic books. The Avengers everyone has been waiting for.

Step aside for… The Ultimate Universe.

CONTD IN PART 2 (THURSDAY)

Practitioners 21: Bryan Hitch

Bryan Hitch is a Practitioner in the truest sense of the word. From small beginnings in an industry that offered a great deal of work opportunities, Hitch has continued a career for more than 25 years, across the two largest comic book companies in the world. Through dedication and a willingness to engage new techniques and styles he has moved well beyond the artist he was in the early eighties with Marvel UK. His work, most recently, has graced the pages of the most sought after popular comic book in the world and launched a new literary universe that only recently ran out of steam.

Bryan Hitch started work at Marvel UK where he started working on Transformers with Simon Furman. This was the very start of American comic companies making a play for UK markets, controlled in particular as they were by transforming toys and action man figures (a quantum leap from the interests of today). While his artwork is almost unrecognisable today compared to his then, the stylistic traits were there. Hitch focussed predominantly on the person framed in each panel and made everything else secondary. A convention he has maintained even now. He joined Simon Furman again on Deaths Head, kick-starting the short career of the cult icon that would revolutionise Marvel UK and British comics.

He crossed the Atlantic in the the late 80s, early nineties as one of the first to find a footing on books specifically printed for US consumption, working successfully for Marvel and DC (both bloated at the time by the sheer popularity of the art form. Marvel Uk continued to break boundaries in the UK and Hitch continued to work for both (with Geoff Senior on Hell’s Angel and Liam Sharp on the incredible Death’s Head II for which his artwork no longer matched – Liam Sharp’s sharper, more realistic and textured style winning out).

Joining Furman again on his run on She-Hulk (9-11, 13-20, 24-26) between 1989 and 1991, Furman, his artwork at the time matched the period perfectly, clear, crisp lines, curves in anatomy and physicality, a natural and light touch. But in built even then was a very tense need to detail. In an issue in which Deaths Head attacks She-Hulk (a reintroduction by Furman and the only way I’ve seen a copy as part of a Death’s Head anthology), Hitch offered clear, buoyant artwork but the backgrounds of New York City that it took place in were well realised. Lightly detailed in terms of material texture but all the line work was there, paired down slightly for the period they were being shown in.

For a UK artist he straddled the big three (Marvel, DC and Marvel UK) perfectly – offered Adventures of Superman, Geo-force and Team Titans by DC but predominantly working with Marvel on Sensational She-Hulk, Excalibur, a Colossus 1 shot, the Maxiseries ClanDestine. He struggled as an artist to move beyond his populist routes, pencilling Captain Planet and the Planeteers for 2 issues (released through Marvel).

But it was as the decade ended that Hitch began to reveal a new style. Taking his original compositions of central character, well realised in the centre of the panel that had gained him so many character based projects previously he applied greater knowledge of detail than had previously been seen from him. The characters became more realistically humanistic,. his portrayal of events more gutteral and well realised. There was a real-world naturalism that had been applied to his template of heroic stances and impactful and bold visual storytelling that was resonant in a way it perhaps hadn’t been before. Comic books themselves were changing in style and content. Pre-millenium, comics had represented a popular form, characterised by superannuated and simplistic visuals and outlook. Hitch had typified this style and added to it technical proficiency but he was about to come into his own.

With an America at war and a dismissive left wing (comic book reading public) reeling from a Republican move towards conflict against global protests and the spectre of America a credible target for overseas terrorist organisations the mood turned more fatalistic, darker and aware of the forces the world could impose on heroes that stood against it. Fire Fighters (embattled, bedraggled and rubble strewn) were the visual hero of the early naughties. Heros would have to reflect this change of ideology in all forms in order to resonate with the audience.

Bryan Hitch had just finished a very successful run on The Authority, a deliberately sardonic and irreverant response to the World of heroes, featuring characters that took heroing to the level they would be expected to in real life – and fighting incredibly insurmountable obstacles. While the rubble was not there yet, the aggressive and brutal nature of the book was beautifully realised in Hitch’s work. His characters now represented real people with real power. His enemies squatted and assaulted a world easily recognisable. Cars were of makes you could recognise. Cities were brick by brick, people’s fashions well recognised and effectively presented. Hitch had learned some tricks and ridden the wave of realism that was being recognised in comics with its collapse in the mid-nineties. While it hadn’t fully taken hold of the industry it clearly had very much presented itself to Hitch.

Between Hitch’s steady incline into a gritty and realistic artist, imbedding his previous lessons of heroic and comic character physicalisation and technical precision with texture, detail and stark realism and the world’s (specifically America’s) sudden decline into insecurity, uncertainty and a need to acknowledge the truth of things; stepped a Scotsman. A scotsman with a plan.

Mark Millar had taken over writing the Authority after Warren Ellis and had realised the ideals it started with even more vigour, aided ably by Frank Quitely. Millar was about to start a series of books known as the Ultimate titles; a modern re-representation of the heroes created by Marvel. Essentially an if-they-start-now scenario. Central to this was the Ultimates; this universes version of the Avengers, and Hitch was selected as artist.

Here, Hitch hit full speed and realised his potential to be a full-on bona fide comic book legend.

The visuals offered up by Ultimates are staggering. The only way they can be described effectively would be like this. An Alien armada is sitting above a military base in the American midwest. A man wrapped in a red and gold sports car chassis is pummelling one of them, a blonde goliath is propelled through one with his hammer, fighters fly between these ships firing at any target they can identify. One alien ship is crashing into another and the debris from this battle can be seen impacting on the ground. Someone (perhaps from a balloon) has taken a photo of this moment – in landscape – and run it through a ‘Poster Edges’ filter on Photoshop. And it is simultaneously at once incredibly awe inspiring, artistic and realistic and thoroughly engaging.

By mixing his changes in style rather than dismantling or discarding them as he went Hitch has developed into a comic artist unlike any other seen in the medium. His blend of realism and grit imbeds the gravity and power of his compositions with an almost hypnotic grip once engaged by it. The need to look further into the panels never overwhelms the reading of the book however as many highly detailed artists have done in the past, as the first lesson Hitch ever learned – that of centralising and depicting a clear and recognisable figure central to each and every panel as a point of focus has survived all he has added to it.

An incredible talent and a seasoned professional at the same time, realised fully in later career life through the willingness to learn and take on new techniques. You have your Quitelys and your Coipels who appear on the scene fully formed like they were birthed from some freakish artistic gene pool but Hitch is something quite different. Hitch was (and is) an artist worth waiting for.

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