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 48: Frank Miller (Part 1)

Frank Miller is an American comic book artist, writer and film director best known for his brooding, dark, film noir depictions of famous comic characters and the development of noir dystopias, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300, Ronin and Daredevil: Born Again. Batman : Dark Knight Returns is viewed as a seminal work in comics history, mandatory for any that want to understand what (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen) changed the face of comics so dramatically in the 1980s. He is also, nowadays, a liberal hate figure after outspoken statements regarding protest camps in the US and UK against multinational corporations. This, among other things, has placed a pall over his previous work, calling into question his politics and views on women, crime and society.

Miller was born in Olney, Maryland and raised Montpelier, Vermont, the fifth of seven children of a nurse mother and an electrician/ carpenter father. He was raised as an Irish Catholic.

Setting out to become an artist, Miller recieved his first published work at Western Publishing’s Gold Key Comics imprint on the comic book version of The Twilight Zone, drawing ‘Royal Feast’ in issue #84 (June 1978), and “Endless Cloud” in #85 (July 1978). Jim Shooter, one-time Marvel Editor-in-chief recalled Miller’s attempt to join DC, emboldened by his sign up with Western Publishing. “He went to DC, and after getting savaged by Joe Orlando, got in to see art director Vinnie Colletta, who recognized talent and arranged for him to get a one-page war-comic job”.

Miller’s first listed work is the six-page “Deliver Me From D-Day”, by writer Wyatt Gwyon, in Weird War Tales #64 (June 1978). A two-page story, however, written by Roger McKenzie and titled “Slowly, painfully, you dig your way from the cold, choking debris…”, appears in Weird War Tales #68 (Oct. 1978). Other fledgling work at DC included the six-page “The Greatest Story Never Told”, by writer Paul Kupperberg, in that same issue, and the five-page “The Edge of History”, written by Elliot S. Maggin, in Unknown Soldier #219 (Sept. 1978). and his first work for Marvel Comics, penciling the 17-page story “The Master Assassin of Mars, Part 3” in John Carter, Warlord of Mars #18 (Nov. 1978).

Miller’s style was never super hero orientated but in an industry that was he had little choice but to pursue it, practicing the form and bringing Superheroes to life well enough to secure a position as regular fill-in and cover artist on a number of titles, including Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-man #27–28 (Feb.–March 1979) which featured a character that grabbed Miller’s attention. As Miller recalled in 2008 “… as soon as a title came along, when [Daredevil signature artist] Gene Colan left Daredevil, I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it”

Although still conforming to traditional comic book styles, Miller introduced his noir style to the pages of Daredevil on his debut, joining on a finale of an ongoing story written by Roger McKenzie. Living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s Miller sketched the roof tops of his surrounding neighbourhoods and imbued the title with a greater accuracy than fans had seen before. New York was now a more dangerous place. His work was cited as reminiscent of German Expressionism’s dramatic edges and shadows as the Red Devil fought mostly now at rooftop level, among the water towers, pipes and chimneys.

Miller’s run was successful enough to bring Daredevil back from being a bi-monthly title to a monthly one but that was far from the limit of the success. With the departure of Roger McKenzie, Miller took over as writer and penciller, with long time collaborator Klaus Janson on inks introducing a skittish, visceral feel. Art became to form. Violence bled (within the limited parameters of the Comics Authority), fear was felt, anger and danger were portrayed. Everything was comics +. This was a slightly more frenetic, powerful version of the superhero canon – the focus on the darkness in the lives of the bright tights. Issue #168 saw the first appearance of the ninja mercenary Elektra, who despite being an assassin-for-hire would become Daredevil’s love-interest. Miller would write and draw a solo Elektra story in Bizarre Adventures #28 (Oct. 1981). This further characterised Miller’s work on Daredevil with darker themes and stories. This peaked when in #181 (April 1982) he had the assassin Bullseye kill Elektra. Miller finished his Daredevil run with issue #191 (Feb. 1983); in his time he had transformed a second-tier character into one of Marvel’s most popular.

Gotham's skyline from Miller's 1986 Dark Knight Returns (with Klaus Janson)

Additionally, Miller drew a short Batman Christmas story, entitled ‘ Wanted: Santa Claus: Dead or Live’ written by Denny O’Neill for DC Special Series #21 (Spring 1980). This professional introduction to the Dark Knight was to prove a point at which the comic industry stopped being something and developed into another entirely. It was the moment that comics began to move into a more graphic, realistic, emotionally dynamic, engaging and challenging era. Elsewhere, Alan Moore was working on The Watchmen and would be asked in future to write The Killing Joke and further darken the world of Gotham and it’s central hero. But nothing that Moore was writing on the Dark Knight compared to one of the most important pieces of comic book literature in history. With Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, Miller began to put together a fractured tale of a future without a Batman and a Bruce Wayne broken by the loss of Jason Todd. Now older and slower, a mournful Wayne is presented again with taking on the banner of the Bat. Only this time the world in which the caped crusader stepped into was very different…

Working with Chris Claremont at Marvel on Wolverine 1-4, inked by Josef Rubenstein and spinning off from the popular X-Men title, Miller used the series to expand on Wolverine’s character. The series was a critical success and cemented Miller as an industry star. Taking an older, curmudgeonly and effectively lonely character and dropping him into a world of greater brutality and violence proved very popular – the Wolverine series still continuing today, surviving the collapse of comics in the mid 90s and still going strong. While other great artists such as Adam Kubert and Marc Silvestri continued and concreted it’s success, Claremont and Miller set the tone. Brutal, fringe figures were quickly becoming Miller’s niche.

Marvel's Wolverine 2 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

In Miller’s first creator-owned title, Ronin, Miller had found himself with his original quarry, DC, and he was given the opportunity to further the concept of the isolated figure of violence on the edge of society. Ronin revealed most clearly the influences of Manga and bande dessinée artforms on Miller’s style, both in the artwork and narrative style. In the early 198os Miller and Steve Gerber proposed a revamp of DC’s central figures entitled ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Dark Knight’ and the frankly less inspiring ‘Amazon’. This proposal was rejected, however the first shoots of a seed of an idea were clearly being shown in those proposals. While the Man of Steel and the Amazon remained as they were, The Dark Knight was set to rise. In 1985, before the release of Miller’s finest work, he was honoured as one of the 50 honourees in the Company’s 50th Anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. Had they left it one more year, Miller would have rocketed into the top 5 with the release of the Dark Knight Returns.

Having never left, in 1986, the Dark Knight Returned and was welcomed with open arms. A four issue mini-series it featured a Gotham gone downhill, unprotected by a figurehead crime fighter as it had been time immemorial in the wider DC Universe. This was the first Elseworlds, a parallel world inhabited by a familiar but substantially different set of characters who could now live or die without consequence. However, Miller was never going to let them off that easily…

At the age of 55, Bruce Wayne returns to the hilt and takes back his role of Batman, it showcased a more adult form of comic-book storytelling by heralding new waves of darker characters. Miller, much like Moore, absorbed a great deal of the world around it though Miller twisted his into a more immediately engaging shape. Punk Gangs and Neo Nazis rule the streets alongside older, more familiar foes – all now even darker than before. The smell of paranoia over the Cold War and the threat of Nuclear War is musky in The Dark Knight, increasing the pall of murk that has descended on Gotham. Simultaneously though Miller gave voice to both liberal and right wing opinions during the series, through continual talking heads on various invented TV shows. With the themes of media, crime, personal responsibility, federal control, public opinion and the futility of redemption, Dark Knight represents a dark and risible future. It was excellent. A timely chime on a bell of collective paranoia, it tapped perfectly into the state of mind of society at the time. Rather than the patronising resolution by brightly coloured gods – here the solution contains only glimmers of salvation but deep shades of absolutism. It satisfies fully as emotional resolutions are struck so rarely in the real world, rarely in conjunction with the resolution of situations. In Miller’s world there are no easy answers. His worlds roll on beyond the final panel, stories often unfinished, character’s unresolved. 25 years later the collected novel remains a timeless best seller.

But what was to come next would cement Miller as a legendary artist and writer but it will be his move to LA that will reveal him as a true auteur. Noir bleeding from every pore, Sin City was still almost a decade away…

Part 2 will be here Next Tuesday

Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 2)

Having conquered (and irritated) the British comic book industry with his time on 2000AD, Captain Britain and Warrior, Alan Moore was about to cross the Atlantic. DC Editor Len Wein offered him a place in the DC lineup – though reserved judgment carefully and only offered a minor, formulaic, failing title.

Swamp Thing was a stereotypical monster title quite a distance from the mainstream legends of DC. Whether Wein offered it as a low priority title that mattered little if Moore failed or saw the potential in Moore’s alternative and original work in the UK, but nevertheless – few could’ve anticipated the work produced. It remains difficult to know if it is because of Moore’s current reputation retrospectively illuminating old work through association or if the Swamp Thing under Moore really represents timeless writing but along with artists Stephen R. Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totleben, Moore revolutionised the character. Taking advantage of the low importance of the title, Moore created beautifully experimental storylines addressing environmental and social issues alongside the horror and fantasy, supported further still with research on Louisiana – where the storyline was set.

Moore recognises comic books as a as a mature medium – potentially as influential, challenging and intellectually stimulating as books, theatre, films or television – when at their best. He recognises that there is no limitation to the content that can be applied to any character or situation, whether they wear a spandex jumpsuit or a psychic formation of roots and swamp vegetation with regenerative powers. He elevated the subject matter and the characters and trusts his reader’s intelligence as any writer should. Through Moore’s writing it becomes clear that the base material is not limited in its scope to be elevated and broadened to meet any audience or handle content thought previously beyond it’s remit. In short, Moore fails to recognise limitations. A comic book page is as alive to him as a page of prose, poetry or a painting in a gallery. In turn this elevated him above the rest of his fellow writers.

Using Swamp Thing as an experimental platform to revive many of DC’s neglected magical or supernatural characters, Moore resurrected a number of figures to greater status that even after 3 decades have not seen them recede back into the minor leagues, including the Spectre, the Demon, the Phantom Stranger and Deadman. One such figure was introduced by Moore. John Constatine is a working class magician based visually on the musician Sting, who later became the central character in Hellblazer, DC imprint Vertigo’s longest running title. From January 1984 to September 1987, from issue 20 to 64, Moore guided Swamp Thing to critical and commercial success. Thanks to Wein’s successes with the first UK invasion – featuring Moore and his soon-to-be-counterpart artist Brian Bolland, the doors were beginning to open for UK and European artists such as Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan and Neil Gaiman to continue in the same vein. Many were influenced directly by Moore and continued the tradition of brave and successful rethinks of existing titles – such as Morrison’s run on DC’s Animal Man some years later. These titles formed the foundation s for Vertigo comics.

Moore’s two-issue run on Vigilante furthered his credibility as a brave, alternative and unrestrictive writer willing to look at difficult and hard hitting stories. The central figure, Vigilante is rendered sidelined and shocked as a father, having abused his daughter, pursues her until he is chewed up in the back wheels of a vengeful young woman’s car. The daughter, having lost her Mother is traumatised and beside herself at the loss of her Father, offering a difficult, challenging and controversial conclusion more recognisable as literary conventions than the black and white moralism of comics.

Eventually, after consistent successes, Moore was offered some of DC’s most prominent characters, starting with Superman, entitled For the Man Who Has Everything, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, in which Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman arrive at the Fortress of Solitude to discover Superman overwhelmed by a plant that offers up his wildest dreams. Moore followed this up with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? – effectively the first example of A Death of Superman storyline – some 8 years before it was thought up by Jurgens and co, designed as the last Superman story in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe and illustrated by Curt Swain. The final fates of Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Clark Kent, Superman and Lois Lane are decided, handled masterfully and with a typically deft touch by Moore.

In 1988 came a Batman story that helped redefine the character along with other titles such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One but was cited as ‘a rare example of a Moore story where the art is better than the writing.’ This was The Killing Joke, a script developed based on artist Brian Bolland’s idea of developing a creation story for the Joker. Escaped from Arkham Asylum, The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon through the stomach, crippling her and then parades photos of her broken body, naked, lying in glass to her Father as part of a twisted fairground ride in a bid to drive him mad. It fails. However, while opinion differs on the effectiveness of the writing – a history for DC’s most famous villain was created, a second tier character was offered a chance to define herself as a central character as Oracle in following years and Batman was darkened and hardened further into the easily recognisable figure we know today. However Moore acknowledges it as not his greatest writing and upset Bolland by referring it to ‘just another Batman story.’ However, Moore had offered Bolland a platform on which to create a defining career project. He’d once again created a wave of success at an apparent low point in his own career. Something that illustrates the power of Moore’s writing and the influence of his involvement.

A set of panels from Tales of the Black Freighter - a comic being read by a character in Watchmen

Another artist gained global fame thanks to Moore’s writing. Dave Gibbons was assigned to a limited series known as the Watchmen, on which Moore asked him to maintain a consistent three tier, 9 panel layout. Collected as trade paperback in 1987, Watchmen is a seminal work and mandatory reading in understanding the history of comic books, cementing Moore’s reputation. A Cold War mystery in which the shadow of Nuclear War threatens the world. The heroes that are caught up in this escalating crisis either work for the U.S. government or are outlawed, all of whom are motivated to heroism by their various psychological hang ups. Using political and social climate to define the history and current state and status of the individual heroes it dealt with subjects like moralism, politicised ethics, loneliness, isolationism, mental illness, sickness, economics and capitalism among others seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly, interlacing the fates of characters defined by templates of central DC characters, but developed well beyond their original’s plotlines. Gibbons met Moore’s recommendations beautifully, allowing his vision to come to life. Watchmen is non-linear and told from multiple point of view, and includes formal experiments such as the symmetrical design of issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ in which the last page is a near mirror image of the first, the second to last the second and so on. Dr Manhattan, a character unrestrained by the limitations of the laws of physics allowed Moore to investigate the implications to free will if the constraints of linear human perception were removed. His most famous character, Rorschach, named after the basic visual psychological test sets the tone perhaps most effectively, bemoaning, pessimistically, a world entirely lost – to him most specifically. Isolated and increasingly unhinged and appearing early in the book as a seemingly inconsequential background figure, Rorschach represents most prominently the outsider aspect that all of the characters suffer from. A masterpiece, it is seen as Moore’s best work and the only comic book ever to win the literary Hugo Award, in a one-time category of Best Other Form. It is widely regarded as the best comic book ever written. Released around the same time as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets it has been seen as part of a movement in mainstream comic books of the time to reach out to adult audiences. Breifly, Moore became a minor celebrity, causing him, typically, to withdraw from the public eye and refuse to attend conventions. This is unsurprising perhaps as he was said to have been followed into the toilet by overzealous autograph hunters at the UKCAC.

Moore proposed a series named Twilight of the Superheroes in 1987, the title a twist on Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Twilight of the Gods’. A series set in a future DC Universe, ruled by Superhumna dynasties, including the House of Steel (watched over by Superman and Wonderwoman) and the House of Thunder (presided over by the Marvel family). About to combine in a dynastic marriage, a move that could threaten world freedoms, several characters, including John Constatine, attempt to stop them and save the world from the power of the superheroes. Perhaps because the proposition would reinstate the many worlds already eliminated in the Crisis on Infinite Earths it never saw the light of day, though DC retains rights to its contents. Many similar projects have appeared since, Mark Waid and Alex Ross of the most prominent of these, Kingdom Come, admitting to having read the notes but insisting that any similarity was purely coincidental and unintended.

Again Moore’s relationship with DC had deteriorated over rights as Moore and Gibbons were paid no royalties for a Watchmen spin-off badge set as DC defined them as ‘promotional items’. Reportedly, and rather appallingly, Moore and Gibbons earned only 2% of the profits earned by DC from Watchmen. Completing V for Vendetta for DC, which they had already begun publishing, Moore slung his bag back over his shoulder and made his way out into the cold wastes and warm embrace of independent comic writing.

Part 3 – Tuesday, 3rd December 2012

Practitioners 44: Andy Lanning

Andy Lanning is a British comic book writer and inker, known, most credibly for his work for Marvel Comics and DC comics and in particular as collaborator with Dan Abnett. For an inker to make the leap to writing one of the foremost titles currently being put out by Marvel, as part of their Cosmic run, is impressive. His association with Dan Abnett has gone from strength to strength for years.

Lanning wasn’t always an inker though, at the spark of his career with Marvel UK in it’s earliest days, he found a position as penciller on the short lived, Jake and Elwood Blues inspired, futuristic Sleeze Brothers was a comic book limited series published by Epic Comics, between August 1989 and January 1990 – a run of just six issues. Written by John Carnell, it followed the titular brothers through a futuristic earth filled with extra terrestrials, pollution, crime and corruption. It was neatly drawn with a warner brothers-esque style with a semi realistic twist. The art style was arguably on par with other artists – Bryan Hitch for instance – who went on to become much more prolific and well known artists – working with Abnett and Lanning much later on their 15 book run on Wildstorm’s The Authority.

Working consistently alongside Dan Abnett, no one has ever been more of a fix-it guy on so many varying projects. He drops seamlessly into whatever position is necessary on any given project, pencilling, inking, co-writing and writing – he’s either the most prolific hanger on or one of the nicest, most capable people in the industry. To be able to work alongside so many names of the industry, including Abnett who alone is responsible for the sales of more than 1.5 million novels and hundreds of thousands of comic books, he has to be a hell of a guy to work with. Bouncing ideas backwards and forwards past him must be akin to a Chinese / South Korean ping pong final at the Olympics.

Lanning’s partnership with Dan Abnett began early on, with a Judge Anderson: Exorcise Duty for the Judge Dredd Annual 1991, with art completed by Anthony Williams. Lanning found popular acclaim inking Liam Sharp’s pencils for the industry shaking Death’s Head 2. A title with more than 500,000 preorders DH 2 was a flagship example of success at a boom time for comic books that’ll never be seen again. His sublime work on Liam Sharp’s detailed and precise and exacting illustrative work shows an incredible attention to detail. With Marvel UK Lanning was involved in Digitek (with John Tomlinson and painted art by Dermot Power) and Codename: Genetix (with Graham Marks, Phil Gascoine and inks by Robin Riggs in 1993)as part of Marvel Uk’s second generation wave of titles.

Lanning graduated to Marvel mainstream with Punisher: Year One (with Abnett, Dale Eaglesham and Scott Koblish) and the Avengers West Coast replacement, Force Works (again with Dan Abnett), which featured Iron Man, USAgent, Scarlet Witch, Wonder man and a long disappeared alien warrior guru named Century. Force Works was elevated some time later into an animated series.

Moving over to DC shortly afterwards with a run on Resurretion Man (with Jackson Guice), The Else world One-shot Batman: Two Faces (with Anthony Williams), Abnett and Lanning (or DnA as they are otherwise known) found a home with DC’s resident spit curled former-resisdent of Krypton, Superman with Prime-Time, The Superman Monster, Return to Krypton and Strange Attractors (on which he worked with Gail Simone as well as Abnett). It was the title for which Olivier Coipel became famous that raised the status for both Lanning and his writing partner as they took on Legion Lost, a reimagining of the debunked Legion of Superheroes title, that later became the ongoing Legion. In many ways Lanning maintains his Mr Fixit role in almost every job he undertakes, working alongside the big names of the industry and putting out consistent and notable writing. Impossible as it is to discern where Lanning ends and Abnett begins, it clearly works – as Abnett has worked diligently beside Lanning on almost all major projects (excluding his 2000AD output) for the last 20 years. To maintain a working arrangement like that for so long is notable in that as the profile of the two writers became greater, one would have stood apart as the creative mind. However, in 20 years, no cracks appear to have shown in the partnership. If anything both have had increasing fun obliterating universes together.

Based on Abnett’s other work (with Warhammer 40k), Lanning appears to be the populist and more comic book orientated, perhaps the thing that brings Abnett’s writing into line with audiences with less of a need for heavy weaponry and enormous armies. However it braeks down, Lanning’s partnership with Abnett clearly spawns enthusiastic and impressive ideas and narratives including some of the best character zingers ever heard. The pair have improved and enhanced their reputation in comic books by simplifying and man handling their characters and allowing events to take hold that other titles fail to. Effectively an editor’s potential worst nightmare, when handed a sand box that they have creative control of the effects are absolutely brilliant.

Lanning and Abnett collaboarted on the ongoing Nova series for Marvel in 2007, following the cataclysmic Nova series from the previous years Marvel Cosmic crossover Annihalation. Lanning and Abnett were handed the scenario whereby the Xandarian Nova Corps would be destroyed completely within 12 pages by the incoming Annihalation wave. triggering an intergalactic war. Some might have balked at the idea but this was Lanning and Abnett’s Raise en dentre. Grabbing the Xandarian Nova Corps helmet by the polished brass, they didn’t destroy the Nova Corps, they really Annihalated it. Thousands of Starships pummel the Nova Corps unexpectedly during a Corps meeting and rather than holding back slightly and allowing certain survivors to pick themselves up from the rubble and try to carry on, Lanning and Abnett killed every single Corpsman but one, our very own Richard Rider in less time than it usually takes to have a two headed character discussion. Rider doesn’t simply get knocked aside, he survives because he’s effectively at the heart of it. He spends four or five panels flirting with a fellow Corpswoman only for her head to be smashed to pieces and is sent hurtling backwards down to the planet below, trapped in the flaming wreckage of the Corps hall he was just in and had tried to fly through in order to escape. Issue 2 sees a battered and injured Nova, trapped under rubble in a quiet tableau of post apocalyptic destruction, snow and ash falling from the grey sky. He spends the rest of the issue scrambling through the rubble, a beautifully rendered example of the pause after immense death, tempered with Nova’s obnoxious banter with the discovered Novacorps Artificial Intelligence. Lanning and Abnett are patient and confident writers, allowing the events to breath and never afraid of the possibility of tragedy, carnage, laughter or brevity to take place within a panel of each other.

In June 2008, Abnett and Lanning announced they had signed an exclusive deal with Marvel and they have served the populist hulk very well. They piloted the Annihalation: Conquest storyline, in which the Phalanx take advantage of the vulnerability of post Annihalation wave societies and block off Kree space. This became a more paired down sequel to Annihalation, focussing very deliberately on very, very specific figures. From these, the title Star Lord, a reimagining of the adapted character that appeared in the late ’90s spawned a new Guardian’s of the Galxy title.

In this Lanning and Abnett have hit their stride absolutely. With a play pen involving some of the most notable characters in the Marvel Universe, they decided to opt for a Green Nymphomaniac murderess, a smart mouthed hero of the Annihalation wars, a warrior built to kill gods, a fallen space mage with schizophrenic tendencies and a talking Raccoon. The inclusion of Rocket Raccoon alone is worth a pat on the back and a pint in the hand. Rocket Raccoon was last seen frequenting 1980s Marvel comic books, being chased by Keystone cops in an absurdist forest surrounded by oddball creations. It was hard to see how the character existed then, let alone could find a place in modern comic book teams. But Rocket Raccoon returned, found in a Kree holding cell, he befriended Groot, a walking tree king so he could use him as a platform for his heavy ordnance. As tactical leader of the team, Rocket is one of the finest examples of writing outrunning the lunacy of a plot. Rocket, along with all the other members of the team are written sublimely. Private progress reports give each character their own distinctive voice and has seen Guardians become one of the most talked about series in years for fans in the know.

Lanning and Abnett have a habit of taking crackpot ideas and breaking all the rules, to positive effect. Their run on War of Kings, described usually as the Cosmic aftermath of Secret Invasion dwarves the events that took place on Earth. With the apparent death’s of Cyclop’s new-found brother Vulcan you would think they were resolving an unfortunate creative choice from the X-men universe (Vulcan wasn’t well liked and leadened the X-men universe immeasurably) until you realise that the External’s King Black Bolt, an iconic and famous figure in books, often stood beside Reed Richards, Namor, Iron Man, Captain America as pillars of a character filled universe dies with him, blowing a massive hole in the side of creation from which nasty things pop out for the Guardians to deal with. The death of a long standing Shi’ar leader (and X-men regular) in Empress Neramani and the raising of Gladiator as new Emperor of the Shi’ar state is plotting that had been denied for nearly 20 years. These character’s were seemingly immovable on the chess board of Marvel’s tactical board. Lanning and Abnett set fire to the Chess board.

But more than that, the love story between Ronan the Accuser and the External’s Crystal is thought provoking and engaging as the clumsy Accuser finds himself out of his depth but slowly charms the warm and emotionally open Crystal to him with his honesty. Gladiator’s struggle with his obvious rise to power is touching as a picture of man who’s devotion is to the seat of power but comes to understand that his future is at the service of his people. It’s powerful stuff, more than acceptable for a historical, political play or romance but it is found in the pages of a comic book in which a Raccoon bounds about the panel shouting insults at his fellow team mates as they fight at the edge of space. They have brought back the multi layered space opera unexpectedly and I know that we at Beyond the Bunker will continue to read it for as long as Lanning and Abnett continue to put them out. Long may they write of Empire building in far distant galaxies. They could even show a certain bearded film maker a thing or two….

Practitioners 39: Adam Hughes

Adam Hughes (born May 5th 1967 in Riverside Township, New Jersey) is an American comic book artist wwho has worked for compnaies such as DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Lucasfilm, Warner Bros. Pictures, Playboy Magazine, Joss Whedon’s Mutant Enemy Productions and Sideshow Collectibles. He is undoubtedly known to American Comic book readers for his renderings of pin-up style female characters and his cover artwork for titles such as Wonder Woman and Catwoman. A specialist in defining the female form, Hughes is an true artist, capable of creating works of fine art freehand at con tables as well as through digital painting and drawing.

Hughes had no formal training in art, beginning his career in 1987, pencilling two short stories and the first issue of Death Hawk, created by Mark Ellis. In 1988, Hughe’s work found its way into Comico’s Maze Agency written by Mike W. Barr and remained on the book for one year. When that title ended (cancelled by Comico), Dc offered Hughes a position drawing Justice League America. Completing both covers and internal artwork to begin with, Hughes moved to just covers only after two years.

At the age of 24, Hughes moved to Atlanta, Georgia in order to join Gaijin Studios, believing that working more closely with fellow artists would improve his own skills. He remained with Gaijin Studios for 12 years.

He followed this with a short stint on Dark Horse comics’ Ghost, Penthouse comix, legionaires and Playstation magazine. Although Hughes wrote and illustrated the interiors of 1996 two-isssue miniseries Gen 13: Ordinary Heroes for Wildstorm, this took him 10 months, cementing his feeling that he should remain as a poster and cover artist. In late 1996 he began a five year run as cover artist on DC Comics Wonder Woman as well as providing cover artwork for Tomb Raider at Top Cow Comics.

When the Star Wars RPG (Role Playing Game) was created by Wizards of the Coast, Hughes created designs for both the original and revised core rule books. When he reused his artwork of Jedi Guardian Sia-Lan Wezz for the cover of Star Wars: Purge the fan response was so great that she was introduced as one of Darth Vader’s early victims.

Talk of an All Star Wonder Woman 6 issue series continues as the Catwoman cover run ended at issue 82 in favour of completing the project (according to an interview at San Diego Comiccon). However, he has explained in subsequent interviews that the project is effectively in ‘the freezer’.

Regardless of what Hughes produces or believes himself (he worked for a short while for Playboy in order to be sure that if the comic book work dried up he still had publications willing to continue to hire him) his work will always be in demand. A nice guy who takes time to respond to almost all deviantart messages he receives he is responsible for some of the finest bodies of work in comic books. A master of anatomy and portraits he is as adept at painting a Jedi in full armour as a voluptuous superheroine ripping her bodice. Elevating the art of erotica to accessible and intelligent levels, Hughes imbeds wry humour into his work, keeping it from ever appearing demeaning or smutty. He imeds intelligence and character into his femme fatales, each one a striking, dominant, strong character, standing there with very few clothes on…

Chris Nolan Justice League Movie in 2013?

The LA Times is reporting today that the movie version of The Justice League may not be quite as dead as everybody once thought. In an interview with The Times, Warner Motion Picture Group President, Jeff Robinov, said that his priority so far as superhero movies goes is to bring the JLA to the big screen in 2013. Let’s just go over that one more time: the man who has ultimate say in what movies Warner Bros. make says that he wants to see a movie featuring the Justice League within two years! Ok, breath.

This isn’t the first time that the League have almost found themselves in a movie. Back in 2008 a film version of the comic was all set to go into production when the writers strike and tax issues killed the project stone dead. Since then it’s been lurking in development limbo because nobody wants to upset the money tree that is Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight series by bringing out another movie with Batman in it. But with Nolan set to wrap up his Gotham opus next year, it looks like Warner is keep to pick up right where they left off. But oh lord, there’s more:

“We have the third Batman, but then we’ll have to reinvent Batman…Chris Nolan and [producing partner and wife] Emma Thomas will be producing it, so it will be a conversation with them about what the next phase is.” – Jeff Robinov

That’s right folks. Chris Nolan will be stepping in to produce the project. Ok, so it’s not the directors chair, but there’s plenty of time for a Hobbit esque incident to grant us that wish too. What’s more, scripts are already in production for both the JLA movie and the spin-off Flash and Wonder Woman movies.

A timescale, a script and Christopher Nolan? It looks like Warner may finally be getting serious about DC movies. Sweet.

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First Look at the new Wonder Woman Costume

EW just released this image of Adrianne Palicki in full costume from NBCs upcoming Wonder Woman TV reboot.

Looks to be a rather snazzy, if slightly shiny, update of the classic outfit and it’s nice to see some bright colours in this age of drab-tone super hero shows.

The show is being made by Boston Legal writer David E. Kelley and will co-star Elizabeth Hurley and Cary (Princess Bride, Men In Tights) Elwes! That last name has sent me into something of a fit of excitement. Despite my initial cynicism, I’m actually starting to think this show could be really good.

We’ll keep you posted.

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Dead Island – The Most Emotional Game Trailer Ever?

Wow. Ok, I was going to post up a story about the latest probably doomed attempt to bring Wonder Woman to TV but let’s be honest doomed attempted to bring Wonder Woman to TV are like buses, so there’ll be time for that later. Today is all about Dead Island for me.

What is Dead Island? Well it’s a zombie game that until yesterday evening was on the radar of nobody whatsoever and since yesterday evening has become the most talked about new game on the web. I’ve long been a proponent of the viewpoint that some of the best writing being done right now is happening in the games industry and if this trailer doesn’t help showcase that fact then I don’t know what does.

Simply breathtaking.

Practitioners 17: Brian Bolland (Part Two)

Part 1 of this fine article can be found HERE!

Bolland was one of the very first comic creators ‘discovered’ by the American comic industry, spearheading the ‘British Invasion’ of ’79/’80. Joe Staton (co-creator of the Omega Men in Green Lantern and long standing DC illustrator) came to live with the Bollands to continue working on Green Lantern while attending a comic convention. Finding out that Bolland wasa Green Lantern fan, Staton called his editor, Jack Harris and said Bolland would like to draw a GL cover. Green Lantern 127 duly featured the work of a certain Mr B Bolland and the cross over the Atlantic was underway. A ‘trickle’ of covers began however Bolland would design covers that writers would craft stories from including Starro and the Superman Beastman cover (Superman 422 (Aug, 1986)).

Among his earliest interior work with DC was a short chapter in Justice League of America 200 – in which his work sat beside some industry legends – and some artistic heroes – Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane as the best of the best George Perez, Jim Apero and Dick Giordano. His success with GL 127 had opened the floodgates and following that small start American companies began to look to the small grey island on the far side of the Atlantic for fresh talent – in particular the heavily DC influenced artists of 2000AD. From Brian Bolland – aided in completing some of his works by his UK compatriots could now return the favour – by opening the door ajar enough for the big companies (namely DC offer Dave Gibbons, Kevin O’ Neill… Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and following the artists, Alan Grant ‘went across’ and at some point ‘a certain tall hairy writer from the Midlands.’ The British Invasion had begun and continues to rumble on. A spearhead created by the modest and extremely talented Brian Bolland, an enthusiast of comics he had now opened the door to for so many.
Len Wein, DC Editor in 1982 chose Bolland to be the artist of Camelot 3000, in which King Arthur returns from Legend to defend Britain from alien invasion. From this, Bolland enjoyed ‘being made a fuss of’ being flown to San Diego to represent DC and the sideways glance at the Arthurian Legends. His attempts to ignore the Andru drafted covers handed to him met with consternation from Wein and so Bolland conceded but reversed the ‘N’ in his name to remind him of his artistic integrity in indignant protest. The ‘N’ remains to this day, reversed as Bolland found he really liked it.
Others inked it (initially an irksome scenario to the practiced draftsman in Bolland though he eventually like the results.) Although the first example of a Maxi-series (12 issues), Camelot 3000 was monthly but Bolland struggled to get it out in time, representing the single largest body of work ever created by Bolland. His determination to make each page better and better and his intention to make the artwork in the final editions ‘look amazing’ caused issues 8-11 to go out quarterly instead of monthly, and the final issue cover dated nine months later than the penultimate issue. Camelot 3000 remains a noteworthy work of illuminated detail and careful and precise artwork attached to a great sci-fi story.
At the time Alan Moore was looking to work on a series under DC, talks underway for a crossover with the Dark Knight and Judge Dredd (which occurred some time later) featuring Bolland and Moore. Dc Editor Dick Giordano asked Bolland what project he wanted to work on next. Of this, Bolland says;

“I thought about it in terms of who’s my favourite writer at the moment, what hero I would really love to do, and which villain? I basically came up with Alan, Batman and the Joker.”

Batman: The Killing Joke was born in that moment. Bolland had a fascnation with the Joker, having recently watched the silent movie ‘The Man who Laughs’ and wanted to do a ‘Joker story with the Batman as a more distant, peripheral character.’ The result introduced one ‘possible origin story’ for the Joker and the plot required the sign off of a major character in the Batman canon being horrifically mutilated at the hands of the Joker. Controversial, incredibly influential and wildly popular The Killing Joke may never have happened. Moore was already at odds with DC following the completion of the Watchmen series (with Dave Gibbons) and effectively finished the job for his friend Bolland. With its near completion in 1988 after a considerable time working on it (both creators reknowned for their intricate and unswerving loyalty to accuracy and precision in ink), Bolland was afeared that it would be consumed by the media fire storm surrounding Frank Miller’s ground breaking Dark Knight Returns. He was also hurt when Moore referred to Killing Joke as ‘to him, just another Bat comic.’ Reeling from the statement by his friend regarding a title he held so close to his heart he was again mortified with the presentation of Watchmen colourist John Higgin’s finishes. Having imagined the flashback scenes in black and white he found “garish… hideous glowing purples and pinks… and my precious Eraserhead-esque flashback sequences swamped in orange.”

In 2008 a version was rereleased as a 20th Anniversary edition featuring colouring by Bolland, restoring his artistic intentions to the palate.

Unable to hand work over to other practitioners, and since Killing Joke, Bolland no longer drew any strip that was not penned by him. Disappointed by a masterpiece that took the comics world by storm rather than being overshadowed by the sharper and more muscular Dark Knight of the same period seems an odd response but a true artist has vision and Bolland can certainly be argued to be a true artist.

He wrote and drew ‘ An Innocent Guy’ for the Anthology title in 1996 in which an otherwise normal inhabitant of Gotham plans the ultimate crime: The murder of the Batman. In it he explored idea that nobody could be deemed a GOODIE or a BADDIE but walked a tightrope in between. Bolland created the covers for Gotham Knights 2-47 (from 5 coloured by himself). Eventually Bolland was told he’d be ‘off the book in a few issues time’ but upon discovering that upcoming covers featured Bane and not Penguin or the Joker as he’d been hoping for some time, Bolland said he’d go right away.

In the following years Bolland created covers for some of the most recognisable characters in DC, including 63 issues of Animal Man, covering the tenure of Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Tom Veitch and Jamie Delano. His practice of identifying a scene in the comic and then a hook from it that would create an entertaining cover has informed his work throughout.

He worked on The Invisibles (Grant Morrison), deftly dealing with the surrealism of the work (perhaps informed by his 60s college days…), and introducing the countdown numbers 12-1 to count down to the millennium installed, hidden into the cover image in each case after watching Peter Greenaway’s film ‘Counting by Numbers.’ By request he gained cover work on Wonder Woman (as she wasn’t interesting to A-List artists – Bolland not considering himself A-List), as well as Geoff John’s The Flash, Tank Girl, Superman, Green Lantern, Batman and Fables and Jack of Fables, Doom Patrol (though he was often rejected while trying to follow previous cover artist Simon Bisley’s work.)

He has produced odd covers for First Comics, Continuity Comics, Eclipse Comics and New Comics though admits a mild phobia about Marvel comics covers after a bad experience on a Marvel Uk Hulk cover and a She-Hulk cover featuring Howard the Duck. The latter is hard to imagine; even in Bolland’s accurate and realistic style.

He has since drawn (and written) Mr Mamoulian, a Robert Crumb-esque semi-autobiographical stream of conciousness humour strip and The Actress and the Bishop, written in rhyming couplets and based on request work from 1985. Both our personal projects but both are of course beautifully realised.

Brian Bolland is a spearhead, notably well loved in his industry. A mainstay of the art form of comic books – Bolland has sold millions of comic books, revolutionised a long standing hero and worked with some of the most demanding and impressive minds in the comic industry. His work a matter of pride first, he has managed to enjoy a long and respected career in comics. His covers are memorable and indelible, as is the effect he has had on the readership throughout his long and impressive career.

But to me the greatest thing about Brian Bolland is that because of his realism and acute awareness to detail and pursuit of accuracy you would never know how old he is. Within his own lifetime, and beyond thanks to his work on Judge Dredd and Batman, with Moore, Morrison and… more. His work is timeless and will illustrate the accomplishments of a great many more artists and writers for many more years to come. Which is, perhaps, why he, more than perhaps all others, has represented so many others on the covers of such great titles.

New Avengers cast member confirmed

The Avengers line-up has a slightly lesser known character being played by an actress more famous for TV roles. Cobie Smulders of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (no we don’t either) will be taking up the position of former Head of Shield and all round tough momma Maria Hill. Smulders was reportedly up for the role of Wonder Woman but will now join WW helmer and Marvel (Astounding X-Men) veteran Joss Whedon on the Avengers movie. Given Whedon’s history with high kicking femme fatales (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) its looking likely that potentially perennial characters such as Maria Hill and Black Widow will get considerable screen time. Good news for the teenage fans and good news most probably for the budget.

This completes the already impressive cast line-up of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and Chris Hemsworth as Iron Man, Captain America, Nick Fury, Black Widow and Thor respectively.

This with the added power of lesser known but credible choices Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk and ‘Hurt Locker’s’ Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.

According to Variety, Smulders has signed on for nine films, including ‘Avengers’ as well as the chapters leading up to it and following such as Iron Man’, ‘Captain America’ and ‘Thor’ etc. The scale of this is incredible. Marvel are forming franchises within franchises and all evidence so far suggests there’s reason to be very excited.

We will keep you posted.