"Our Mission Is To Destroy Crime...ALL Crime!" COMICS! Sometimes Justice Has A Big Dead Face!

Yes, it's Sunday Afternoon Kirby Deification Theatre!More after these messages from our sponsors!


Nah, not really. I know you're all expecting me to link The Avenger, Jack Kirby and Justice and do some frothing rant about how Marvel Comics should just give The King his due so we can all just get on with our lives. But I didn't. I just wrote about an odd little '70s comic The King did on his way out of the door at DC Comics. I don't even go on about The King that much. Okay? I like to keep you guessing!

JUSTICE INC #1 - 4 Art by Al "Mysterious" McWilliams and Jack "KING!!!" Kirby Inks and letters by Mike "Royalty" Royer Words by Denny "No Heel!" O'Neil (Assisted by Paul "I Am Legion!" Levitz) Characters created by Walter Gibson and Lester Dent Issues 1,2 based on the "novels" by Paul Ernst ("Kenneth Robeson" was a pen name covering the work of the above three men.) (DC Comics, 1975, $0.25ea)


The Avenger first appeared in his self-titled magazine in 1939 and by 1942 he was gone. So, it's probably fair to say that "Lester Dent"'s attempt to replicate the success and appeal of Doc Savage failed. It's also probably fair to say that The Avenger's failure was due to the public just not wanting another pulp hero rather than the character being bad or anything. There must be something to him because he keeps popping up in The River of Time like a badly weighted corpse. After all, The Avenger was part of DC Comics' 2009 FIRST WAVE pulp sales disaster and had an (uncollected) 2 part prestige series in 1989 by Helfer/Baker. And in 1974 he butchly brooded on the pages of this series. So, yeah, who is The Avenger and how did his face gets so dead? Glad you asked.


Since this series lasts only four issues there isn't much room to expand on the basics of the character much,  but luckily Editor Allan Asherman provides a comprehensive run down on the character in the back of #1. So, I can just steal all that and look right clever and if Jess Nevins wants to question any of it he can just go get all up in Allan Asherman's face instead. Anyway, Dick Benson is a family man, ah, but he is a family man of the '30s! Hence it is quite believable that he was previously an adventurer and treasure hunter because, apparently, career choices in the '30s were a lot more fun. (What Allan Asherman omits but Wikipedia (hey, I'm not proud!) does not is the fact that Dick Benson also lead "native armies in Java". Which I guess makes him a mercenary. Yeah, they've dropped that by the '70s.) It doesn't really matter what unlikely employment Benson's had all that matters is that he's really wealthy and astonishingly well trained at violence. Because if an average Joe gets has his family killed by sinister criminals he tends to just have a breakdown, never find who did it and end his life living with a woman who really likes cats and is too deaf to hear him weeping in the night. That's not really very pulp though whereas a man who is master of Karate, Kung-Fu and Savate (which is not apparently a male fragrance), possesses a photographic memory, has knowledge of the sciences, and has spent an entire YEAR (Asherman's emphasis) learning to use a gun and a knife is very Pulp. He's also probably someone with very poor hand-eye coordination (a YEAR!!! (my emphasis)). Fortunately his family die and he gets to put all these mad skillz to good use attempting to destroy ALL crime!


Unfortunately the shock of Benson's family's death results in total facial paralysis and his face, hair and eyes all turning as white as Jesus' conscience. Really quite white, that is. The best bit is that although Benson's facial muscles are paralysed the face itself is infinitely malleable. With a few deft cheek chuches and finger digs he can replicate the features of anyone! Sure, medical professionals may be tutting and shaking their heads at this but I'm sure the rest of us find this scenario only too plausible. Oh, and he's right handy at makeup which he keeps in a "small" make-up kit, which comprises make-up, every colour of contact lens, shoes with lifts of different heights, padded shirts and wigs in every style and colour. That's an interesting use of the word "small" there I'm sure you'll agree. Come on now, if you are expecting the adventures of a man with a malleable face who has trained as a one man army in a fight to destroy all crime to be sensible, well, you've probably misread the signals even worse than tha time that chick just upped and glassed you in the face. It's absurd is what it is. And I like absurd things and these comics are pretty absurd.


As you've probably noticed Al McWilliams draws the first issue not Jack Kirby. I don't know anything about Al McWilliams and for all I know he could be a pseudonym for Al Williamson or something. There were a lot of artists working for more than one company under different names (e.g. cheeky Gil Kane) around this time so it's possible. More likely Al McWilliams just never took to being exploited like an unloved drayhorse as is comics' wont and is a real human being who I've just insulted by positing his imaginary nature. He draws in a heavily realistic and illustrative style which is pretty good. There's not a lot of sense of motion but that's par for the illustrative approach, however, the realism does help the absurdity on display go down smoothly. That's one way to go but it's not the way Jack Kirby chooses.

(In the comments below J. Kevin Carrier points out that "Al McWilliams drew a bunch of comics from the ’40s to the ’80s, mostly for Dell, Gold Key, and Whitman. He also drew the newspaper strip “Twin Earths”." so there you go. Apologies to Al McWilliams and thanks to J. Kevin Carrier!)

He chooses to pump up the preposterousness to such a level that absurdity looks tame indeed. Actually that's not a choice he's made, as by 1974 that was Kirby's style. And it's a great fit for something as lovably daft as this. The book is set in the '30s and Kirby's '30s look like Kirby's '70s or Kirby's '80s rather than the real world '30s. The buildings look like a gifted child's been at the building blocks again, everything is ornately chunky even the people. By 1974 as far as his art was concerned every town was Kirbytown! It's not his best work but it is his work and so it has pleasures and rewards on every page. I guess it wouldn't have been his best work because Kirby's work here is probably among the last pages he worked on at DC Comics before Marvel got to kick him around one more time.

By the end of his time at DC Comics Kirby was just being given up work to make up his agreed page rate as all his own books were cancelled. It must have been quite a shock for him working off someone else's scripts. Sure, he'd worked with Joe Simon but that seems to have been a properly collaborative relationship with both of them mucking in on different aspects as and when. Prior to Kirby's '7os DC work he would have been used to the Marvel Method. Allegedly this could be seen as involving Jack Kirby coming up with ideas and drawings which some other guy would reword the dialogue for with snake oil slickery before claiming complete credit. Some people might say that anyway. So, Kirby was probably befuddled by the fact that Denny O'Neil had provided him with a full script with a structure and dialogue and everything with only the expectation that Kirby draw it.  So he does because he was The King and that's what The King did.


There's a repetitive aspect to O'Neill's scripts that's worth addressing. In every issue several things will always occur. There will always be a scene where the two black characters (Josh and Rosabel) act in a Minstrelly way. The first time you see this your heart just sinks and you immediately imagine that bit of text they have to put in certain reprints now about how "Bits of this comic are a tad racist but look, it was a long time ago, and people didn't hide it as well as they do now. So don't be writing us angry letters about Billy Batson using burnt cork on his face as a disguise, please." It's okay though because immediately afterwards the two characters will have been revealed to have been acting dumb and are in fact "extremely intelligent college graduates." The book is set in the '30s after all so I think O'Neill does as good a job as can be expected of acknowledging and undercutting the racism of the time in a book produced in the '70s and aimed primarily at children.


There will always be a scene where The Avenger shoots someone only to have to explain that he never takes life and the shot has just "grazed" their scalp. This is interesting because although Benson is intimate enough with his weapons to have named them Ike (the knife) and Mike (the gun) all his training has been towards the end of being so proficient in their use that he can use them and not take life. Today a character would train in order to be able to take the most life as possible in any situation. So, yes, Benson may be creepy enough to give his weapons names but he's still better than that sad twat The Punisher. Also, Benson doesn't fight alone he has a bunch of chums who accompany him in the relentless quest to kill ALL Crime! The weird thing is all of them are spectacularly intelligent but talk in a way which belies this intelligence. Except for Smitty who talks daft in the books but doesn't in the comics. That's Algernon Heathcote Smith not regular commentator J_Smitty, because as intelligent as the former is at no point does the comic book Smitty mention donuts. Or Kickstarter.


Now all this repetition, together with the customary every issue regular recap of Benson's origin and skills, isn't the result of O'Neill's lack of writerly skills. No, it's a product of the time.  The emphasis in the '70s was on single issue stories as there was no expectation that readers would be able to find the next issue and so in two separate letter columns Asherman has to defend his book's choices along these lines:

"We wouldn't have minded devoting two issues to the origin either. But we also like to give our reader's their money's worth, and personally, would YOU like to buy a first issue and find "to be continued" at the end of the story?" (from issue3)

Interesting, n'est pas?

Some of the other repetition is a little harder to explain. With the exception of the first issue the three other issues end with the villain falling to his death. Seriously. Look, I faffed about in Photoshop and everything to prove it:


I don't know what that's about! Although it should be noted that it is partially explained in that issue 2 and issue 4 have exactly the same plot with only details and names changed. I guess this is because they knew they had one more issue but that was it so, hey, here's issue 2 again, who wants to go out and hold doors open for ladies!?! It's still a lot of death plunges, I feel.

So, JUSTICE INC then? Not the world's greatest comic coming across as it does as being cancelled before finding its flow and thus making its flaws all the more obvious. But in its favour it does have '70s Jack Kirby art which, for me, is the best kind of art. And maybe even more than that JUSTICE INC has plots like the one in #4 which involve the villain releasing seagulls loaded with explosives from his zeppelin and guiding the fatal flock by radio at his own airplanes in order to collect on the insurance. I mean, what could go wrong? Any comic drawn by Jack Kirby with a plot that absurd could never be less than GOOD! Me, I'm neither fierce nor noble but, like The Avenger, I am gone!

Jack kIrby A.K.A. King Kirby

Hope you had a nice weekend and read some COMICS!!!

"I'm A MAN, And I'll LOVE You As A Man Loves A ..." Comics! Sometimes There's A Film Out As Well! (John Carter!)

So, yeah, there's a John Carter film out on Friday. Not that I ever get to the pictures anymore but, hey, you might! In the meantime you could read this about some comics featuring the same character. It's a thought isn't it. Probably one more than went into the writing of this. Hey, can CGI do this?: Photobucket

No, no it can not. You lose CGI!

I guess I should start with a disclaimer: I'm not really an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan; indeed I don't even know if I have read the source novels for these comics. So if you're looking for an informed Burroughsian monograph you might want to jump off right here. What follows is just some old gimp prattling about some comics, because what he really likes is comics. And prattling.


EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS: THE JESSE MARSH YEARS Drawn by Jesse Marsh. Scripted by Paul S. Newman. Foreword by Mario Henandez. Collects Four Color Comics #375, #437 and #488, originally published in 1952 and 1953 by Dell Publishing Co., inc. (Dark Horse Books, 2010, $29.99)


I bought this book because once I'd seen the cover it refused to entirely leave my mind and was constantly hovering there urgently pressing me to purchase it at some point. I think it was the really solid no-nonsense blacks that fixed the image to the page and into my mind. At the time I had been admiring Don Heck's solid blacks and this seemed to play off and feed into that brief flare of interest. Also, there was something very Gilbert Hernandez about it what with the intentionally(?) stilted poses , the harsh crease lines and the occasional smattering of dots for texture. So I bought the book with some Christmas money and prepared to be disappointed. Obviously the cover was just a lucky image that Dark Horse were using to lure credulous punters like myself into buying reprints of justly forgotten chaff as the Hollywood version of the material slowly hove into view.

I was wrong.


Mars circa 1952.

This book was fantastic. Jesse Marsh is fantastic. This isn't actually news to anyone except me it seems. He's actually on the list of possible inductees into the 2012 Eisner's Hall of Fame. Casting my mind back I recall interviews with Alex Toth and Howard Victor Chaykin (who is also on the 2012 Hall of Fame list. What a dilemma!) in which both mention Jesse Marsh. Still, it's one thing hearing about a comic artist's work and seeing it.

Actually looking at it Marsh's work looks totally ahead of its time. Wait, let's back up. I'm not saying anyone could mistake these comics for modern comics. The very nature of the material works against Marsh in this regard. For a start each of the three reprinted comics are tasked with adapting an entire Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel in 32 pages. There's no time for shilly-shallying, no room for indulgences like splash pages, very little chance for a panel's art to be unadorned by narration or dialogue. No, Marsh has to fit it all in to a series of pages consisting of (roughly) 6x6 grids where his greatest indulgence is to let two such panels bleed together either vertically or horizontally. And he doesn't get to do that all that often. Cramped and constricted as he is by the format Marsh has the technique to deliver the equivalent of putting on a musical in an elevator. That's where the 'ahead of its time' bit comes in; in the actual art.


The Incomporable Dejah Thoris - Circa 1952.

There's a colossally impressive understanding of design on show. Because Marsh is working in the highly strictured world of '50s comics (and Gold Key were particularly inflexible in format) Marsh is unable to do anything about the actual page design but the design of the panels themselves are beautifully chosen to balance the elements within them. And (get this) the actual elements within the panels are further forays into design by an artist who was clearly just so incredibly good at what he did he could do the incredible just to keep himself amused. What other reason can there be for the pictures/sculptures/scenery with which Marsh surrounds his characters? His sculptures and pictures are so good I have the suspicion that they are actual object d'art that only my lack of breeding and education prevent me from identifying. The fact they change from panel to panel (even when the scene has not changed!) suggest Marsh was just larking about. But, what larks!


Martian Action! Circa 1952.

But, no, you aren't going to mistake these comics for the cutting edge of Now. Marsh's work does have its failings but although the characters may be stiff  it must be said they are distinctive. The "incomparable" Dejah Thoris seems to have been modelled on the actor Emily Watson which can't be right? John Carter isn't terribly expressive but he does look like himself in every scene and doesn't look like anyone else and you can't always say that about even modern comics. Although the big thing everyone gets sweaty about with Burrough's Mars novels is that everyone is nudey rude except for weapons and jewelry everyone here is fully dressed.  So, I guess purist might balk but all the incident, adventure and momentum of good pulp entertainment remain intact. Given the task of illustrating the functional script of Paul S. Newman Marsh manages to not only provide work which does so but at the same time carves out room to indulge his own idiosyncrasies and interests in a way which actually serves to enhance the work rather than distract or undermine its primary purpose: to entertain.


John Carter circa 1952.

One for the folks interested in form rather than content, or the talent rather than the character if you like.  VERY GOOD!


EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS: WEIRD WORLDS Art by Sal Amendola, Murphy Anderson, Gray Morrow and Joe Orlando. Written by Marv Wolfman. Introduction by Marv Wolfman. Collects stories from Tarzan #207-209 and Weird Worlds #1-#7, originally published in 1972 and 1973 by DC Comics. (Dark Horse Books, 2011, $14.99)


In 1971 as a hedge against the possibility that super-heroes had outstayed their welcome DC comics cast about for properties to replace them. Tarzan and the other ERB properties, including John Carter, caught DC's fancy since they were still adventure themed but more sober in appearance than super-heroes. This tells us that people are always predicting the end of super-hero comics and sobriety is pretty subjective. Good news for drunks, then! Great news for The Incomparable Joe Kubert who took the lead on the project. While his creative talents were focused on Tarzan he took on editorial duties for the other ERB character, such as John Carter. According to Bill Schelly's Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert (which I am filleting facts from in an attempt to look knowledgeable) Murphy Anderson and Marv Wolfman got the John Carter assignment because they were big John Carter fans. Apparently Michael William Kaluta wanted the gig but Murphy Anderson got it, mostly because he shared an office with Pappy Joe Kubert and was asked first. Not exactly high drama but that's what happened.  (You could have guessed Granite Joe Kubert had edited these stories because he can't help sticking his inky fingers in the Gray Morrow chapter on on pg17-22.) Anyway, the comics that resulted are collected in this book.


Mars circa 1972.

Given the fact that fully two decades separate the work in this volume and that contained in the Marsh volume discussed earlier it's interesting to see how the comic art approach has changed. There's a lot more variety in page design in 1971 with panels inset into double page splashes, flashback panels with wobbly edges, decorative chapter headings a la old timey newspaper strips and on and on. What's clear is that the artist has far more freedom to control the visual presentation of the material. In between Marsh and Anderson's work something new has appeared: pacing. There is no pacing in the Marsh book; there's no opportunity for it. But in this volume it's evident that the writer/artist are able to actually pace their material. The material may have set limits as to length but these limits are far more generous than those Marsh was labouring under.

Photobucket The Incomparable Dejah Thoris circa 1972.

There's also a lot more freedom with regards to sex'n'violence. In the '50s material the incomparable Dejah Thoris was wrapped up like a shoolmarm but by the '70s she's certainly giving herself a good airing. Don't worry though because in the '50s John Carter was decked out like a Hussar but by the '70s he's all raggedy loincloth and musky muscles so noone's playing favourites here. Poor old Jesse Marsh had at best a couple of panels to depict savage action on worlds unknown but Anderson et al fare better with plenty of room to swing a Thark.


Martian Action! Circa 1972.

The ERB books didn't really sell very well and after a while moves were made to bring in cheaper foreign artists which probably explains why Murphy Anderson's contributions stop on pg. 68 and Sal Amendola finishes off the rest of the book. I'm not saying Sal Amendola was foreign (to American shores) but I am betting he was cheaper.  After the somewhat traditional art preceding it the book suddenly explodes into a Barbarellatastic mindmelt of groovy layouts and gear designs, man. Well, it tries to. Alas, Sal Amedola is hampered by a lack of talent but the surfeit of ambition he possesses almost overcomes this. I said "almost". It isn't very pretty but I admire the energy; that's about as good as it gets with the Sal Amendola stuff. He does, however, chuck in some nudey rudery for the hardcore Burroughs' fans which is amusingly cheeky of him.


John Carter circa 1972.

As a complete TPB this one disappoints in that it starts off with some strong and solid work by industry vets but is compromised halfway through by market considerations to ultimatley produce a collection that I can only call OKAY!


EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS: WARLORD OF MARS Art by Ross Andru, Bob Budiansky, Sal Buscema, Ernie Chan, Dave Cockrum, Ernie Colon, Frank Giacoia, Larry Hama, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Bob McLeod, Frank Miller, George Perez, Walt Simonson, Mike Vosburg and Alan Weiss. Words by Chris Claremont, Peter Gillis, Bill Mantlo, Alan Weiss and Marv Wolfman Foreword by Michael Chabon Collects John Carter, Warlord of Mars #1-#28 and Annuals #1-#3 originally published in 1977-79 by Marvel Comics. (Dark Horse Books, 2011, $29.99)


Pulp got Gil Kane early and pulp got Gil Kane but good. Although he was often opining that Comics needed to mature itself in terms of subject matter, he, himself, was never able to escape the grip pulp held on his imagination. Gil Kane was a great, great man but his tastes could tend to the unsophisticated. Luckily since that was the very problem he berated comics for he may have been held back creatively but it didn't hurt him commercially. Particularly in the '70s when pulp's stock was strong in the comics market and he had plenty of juice himself.


Mars circa 1977.

In the '70s Kane spent a lot of time working up books he'd be interested in doing, starting them, realising he couldn't produce pages fast enough to pay him enough, leave the book, work up a book he's be interested in doing...and rinse, repeat. He was like the goddamn Littlest Hobo of comics or something ("There’s a voice that keeps on calling me. Down the road is where I’ll always be").  I'm being 'exasperated' because that behaviour makes it really hard to get good long runs of his stuff in collections. Obviously I know that's really not any concern of Gil Kane but  equally obviously it does mean I'm glad to have this volume.


The Incomparable Dejah Thoris circa 1977.

So, yeah, my primary interest in this volume is the Gil Kane stuff. That's a good 190 pages. After that my attention started to wander a bit but I can assure you that the Gil Kane on these pages is some good Gil. As usual his natural glory is clothed by inks by someone else which isn't ideal but hardly a deal breaker. Most of the time the inks are by Rudy Nebres or other Filipino artists of the period. Which is fine as this  lends everything an ornate quality appropriate to the pulp material. It helps make up for Kane's shortcomings. Oh, I love old Gil I do, I do but he did suffer from visual generalisation quite a bit. C'mon, we speak freely here; his future buildings and his ancient buildings are only distinguishable because the latter have some cracks in and a tree growing out of a window while the former doesn't. So, while it's usual to bemoan the fact it isn't Kane on Kane action for this volume it works out okay; the ripe inking lends everything a distinctive character Kane would probably have omitted if left to his own devices.


Martian Action! Circa 1977.

Where Kane doesn't need any help is in portraying the supple violence of well honed bodies in motion, communicating the lusty allure of his sexy ladies and his even more alluring men and basically creating such an atmosphere of raw physicality that it practically removes the readers glasses and tells them they are beautiful. Or something. I like Gil Kane's art, it sends me. Of course like any good bad boy he's gone when he's had his fill and Kane's departure makes the book stumble a little but the continued use of Rudy Nebres gives it enough visual continuity to keep it upright and interesting. For a while anyway. Storywise it's just the usual pulp stuff. In that it's more important that things happen than that the things that happen actually make sense. In fact the more outlandish and sense defying the better. The Headmen of Mars by Bill Mantlo and Ernie Chan is a particularly proud erection to the joys of sheer momentum and excess over intellect. It's pulp and it's written as such so the words don't treally bear close examination. Ah, but that's what they want you to think. If, however, you do pay attention to the words you find that EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS: WARLORD OF MARS is in fact lubricated with sly innuendo and at times this reaches such steamy excess that it wouldn't be too great a surprise if the pages dilated at the touch of your enquiring fingers or let loose a soft sigh at the insistent pressure of your questing gaze.

I'm not joking. Not only are John Carter and the Incomparable Dejah Thoris continually on their way to/from the boudoir but you get the impression that if it weren't for all these Master Assassins of Mars, zombie hordes, air-pirates of Mars etc. they would be quite happy just letting John Carter make good on all his multiple breathy promises to "love her as only a husband can love a wife", "kiss her as she has never been kissed before" and "get right in there and root around like a monkey looking for nuts".  This reaches delirious heights on p. 306 when the text reads:

"With a SKILL that still occasionally SURPRISES me--I MATCHED course and speed with Dejah's flier and DOCKED the two craft together. A moment later I was at her ENTRY HATCH--With a cry torn from her SOUL, she sprang into my arms --I will not DWELL on what happened next."

Oh, do dwell, Chris Claremont, dwell!


John Carter circa 1977.

And you know what? That's great! The John Carter and The Incomparable Dejah Thoris actually resemble a couple with a working sexual attraction. Okay, it might be somewhat exaggerated in a pulp stylee but maybe if my muscles were three times as powerful as any other males I imagine I'd be a lot more popular too.

I really liked this book but I think I've made it clear that that that's primarily because of the presence of Gil Kane, a tendency for my own interests to run to the unsophisticated and an appreciation for healthy smut. If you do not share these pleasures you probably won't find this to be GOOD!

(Apparently Marvel have released the same comics in a colour over-sized Omnibus. They are probably even better in colour. Sighhhhhhh.)


Mars. The Incomparable Dejah Thoris. John Carter. ('Mars Action' about to occur) circa 1977.

Have a good weekend and remember to read some COMICS!!!