Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Tribute to Nicola Cuti

I liked anthologies, writing a story where you never quite knew if the hero was going to come out successful or be devastated by his problems. I kind of liked knowing that you never knew if the hero or heroine was going to survive at the end. Excerpt taken from Nick Cuti's interview with Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Artist # 12, March 2001.  
Nicola (Nick) Cuti was a versatile writer, editor and artist who contributed to the comic book field for decades. His first professional scripts appeared in Warren's black and white horror magazines (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella), where he also worked in an editorial capacity from 1969-1971. His next position was at Charlton Press, working as an assistant editor/writer. Nick soon received  recognition in fan circles when he created E-Man with artist Joe Staton, a satirical superhero inspired by Jack Cole's Plastic Man. This piece will focus primarily on his early work for those two companies. 

Cuti's creation Moonchild first appeared in a French magazine circa 1966; two years later the character surfaced in various small press and underground publications. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.  

Cuti's first pro script appeared in Creepy # 28, August 1969, embellished by Tom Sutton, a quirky and distinctive artist who he often teamed with on numerous Warren and Charlton stories. 

This introduction to an interconnected story by Cuti includes representations of the creators as illustrated by Billy Graham. Vampirella illo by Frank Frazetta. Vampirella # 7, September 1970. 

Cuti co-wrote the story "Prelude to Armageddon" with one of comics' recognized superstars, artist Wally Wood. His apprenticeship in Wood's Valley Stream, Long Island studio in the late 1960s, working alongside pros such as Syd Shores and Jack Abel was, in Cuti's view, an educational and highly-rewarding experience. Gaspar Saladino lettering. Creepy # 41, September 1971.

In 1971 Nick Cuti was hired by Charlton editor George Wildman to be his assistant, taking on the bulk of production-related chores and providing a supporting role to head writer Joe Gill. With great rapidity Cuti became a valuable addition to the Charlton staff. Cuti spoke with fondness on the benefits of working for Charlton, a company that had very little in common with the monolithic presence of Marvel and DC, who, in the main, focused on ongoing characters and superhero fantasies. Cuti explained in his Comic Book Artist interview:
..I loved working there because there really weren't any restrictions, just categories. If I, the writer, felt like scripting a romance comic, I could script a romance comic, or if I felt like writing a war comic or a horror story, or whatever, I would just sit down and bang one out.

Cuti's first ongoing series for editor George Wildman was writing the adventures of Popeye, the beloved comic strip character created by E.C.Segar. The irascible sailor, whose exposure blossomed in animated cartoons, was recognized by both children and adults. Beginning with issue # 114, May 1972, Cuti's stories continued to be published long after he parted ways with Charlton (likely a backlog of inventory) until the books' demise in 1977. George Wildman cover. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database.  
An early Charlton script by Cuti includes a rare inking job over Jack Abel pencils. "Lure of the Swamp," Haunted # 8, October 1972. 

Charlton had its own idiosyncratic style which becomes more charming as the years pass, perhaps due to the rigidity of modern day mainstream comics. Here Cuti scripts the equivalent of a Haiku; one-page illustrated by veteran Charles Nicholas, and, while the rest of the comic is in color, this page was rendered in black and white. The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 37, March 1973.

Cuti teams up with Pete Morisi (art and lettering) on "Wrong Turn," a chilling tale from Haunted # 13, July 1973. 

The Weirdlings was a bizarre humor strip created, written and drawn by Cuti that appeared in various Charlton ghost titles. Ghostly Tales # 107, October 1973.   

 In addition to Cuti's freelance writing, as assistant editor he had to deal with production and publishing issues, including paper strikes which greatly affected Charlton. From The Comic Reader # 102, December 1973.

"Death in a Darkroom" was a natural story idea for Cuti, since his father was a technician who developed pictures for magazines including Life, Time and Sports Illustrated. Nick also dabbled in photography, which helped inform his own storytelling and pictorial sensibilities. Steve Ditko art; Charlotte Jetter letters. Ghost Manor # 21, November 1974. 

Mr. Ober's Nightmare," Scary Tales # 8, November 1976. Charlotte Jetter lettering. 

Steve Ditko illustrated quite a few Cuti scripted thrillers, two examples of which are seen above. Cuti first encountered Ditko when he worked at Wally Wood's studio and did the honors of picking him up at the train station. He explained:
Steve was tall, thin, wore glasses, and had a receding hairline, and a friendly smile. He was dressed in a long, black coat and fedora hat. As we drove to the Studio, he quipped, “So this is Valley Stream, but, Nick, I don’t see a valley or a stream anywhere.”
Cuti had a sharp eye for new talent and gave future fan favorites such as John Byrne and Mike Zeck their first professional jobs. In a few short years Byrne was the artist on the successful X-Men series, while Zeck illustrated many popular series, including Captain America, Master of Kung Fu and The Punisher. "Hades University," Scary Tales # 9, January 1977. Art and letting by Zeck. 

  "The Thing in the Subway," Joe Staton art and lettering, Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 43, December 1973.

 Mike Mauser, seen in the last panel, was a private eye parody who was visually patterned on Dustin Hoffman's Ratzo Rizzo. He debuted as a supporting player in E-Man and graduated to a back-up feature in Vengeance Squad. Cuti loved detective stories and film noir, which made Mauser a character he was especially fond of. If you peruse the scraps of paper littering the table you'll see a nod to Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer and J.J. Gittes. Staton often added jokey bits of business for observant fans to seek out in his stories. "The Inner Sun," E-Man # 8, May 1975; Joe Staton art and lettering; Wendy Fiore colors.

Artist Joe Staton collaborated frequently with Cuti; the duo worked harmoniously on an array of mystery/horror/romance stories at Charlton. When management requested a new superhero title, Cuti naturally went to Staton for the visual presentation. Together they devised E-Man, an offbeat, lighthearted superhero comic that had an initial ten-issue run and was often revived by the creators.   

Cuti left his editorial position and became a staff writer for Charlton until 1975 when he was let go. He continued to work in the industry, including writing for Western Publishing and in DC editorial. Cuti acknowledged that his most satisfying assignments were at Warren, where he freelanced until they went out of business in 1981. Cuti branched out to other media, including writing novels, working in animation and creating his own independent films. Despite these other activities Cuti never strayed too far from comics, and was accessible to fans through convention appearances, his website and Facebook.

Nicola Cuti rarely attained the attention or notoriety of his peers, particularly those who toiled in the high-profile, fan oriented world of superheroes. There may be a tinge of irony in the fact that if not for his creation of E-Man he may have been further marginalized. Cuti expressed little interest in larger-than-life personas, as he elaborated in his Comic Book Artist interview:
It's not that I have anything against superheroes, but they're just a genre as far as I'm concerned, and a good genre. But they've taken over, and that's the only objection I've had with them. When I was a kid I read Batman and Superman, just like everyone else, but not exclusively. They were just one of the things. I also read Lone Ranger and Captain Video and a whole bunch of other stuff. They were just one part of the whole thing. 

Nick Cuti was a craftsman who found pleasure in telling stories in the comic book format; all types, which could be appreciated on many levels and by a variety of age groups. At Warren and Charlton he was given the freedom to let his imagination run wild, which often led to superior results. When outlets such as Charlton faded away, those creators who thrived in that environment were cast aside. Mainstream comics became fodder to an increasingly niche fan base, and the kid on the street with loose change in his pockets was abandoned.           
      Nicola Cuti passed away at the age of 75 on February 21, 2020.   

                   An inscription from Nick Cuti to yours truly. E-Man # 24, June 1985.  

On a personal note, Nick Cuti was one of the first professionals I spoke with at length in the offices of DC comics around 1985. We chatted about creators I held in particular esteem, including Wally Wood and Steve Ditko, and he impressed me as a gentleman of great enthusiasm for his profession. From one Nick to another: you will be greatly missed.   

(If you would like to read more on Nick Cuti and/or Charlton please see my featured post located on the upper right hand corner of this page).  



Saturday, November 23, 2019

Why I Like Steve Ditko

Note: The following is a blog post that was originally presented on July, 28th, 2011.  Some of the content has been updated but the general tone has been retained and I've left some of the topical comments as is. (More on Ditko, indeed!) 

One of my earliest forays as a blogger finds me spotlighting Steve Ditko's contributions to comics. I believe it's entirely justified, and even incumbent upon me, for such an oversight would be comparable to chronicling the history of the New York Yankees and ignoring the achievements of Babe Ruth or Mariano Rivera. I encountered Ditko's art at a very young age and was captivated by it virtually from the start. Why did his particular style resonate with me on such a visceral level? While searching through my memories one image surfaced with vivid clarity: an Amazing Spider-Man panel where a gang of criminals are fleeing. Ditko's composition was brilliant in its simplicity, showing the miscreants from the waist down, clearly startled by the Spider-Signal illuminating the pavement. I observed how their trousers swayed rhythmically, with a sense of bone and sinew underneath (that's how MY clothes moved when I walked!). Even a six or seven year old recognized that the artist drawing these pictures had done his homework, providing an underpinning of authenticity alongside the fantastic elements.
Amazing Spider-Man # 19, Dec 1964
Ditko's work is distinguished by an understanding of what makes a comic book work. Following the lead of artists he admired (Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, Mort Meskin) Ditko was able to delineate figures, forms, settings and people with a knowledge of the real world. Ditko studied how clothing flowed against a body in motion and innately grasped the complexity of hands and muscle structure. Like master cartoonist Alex Toth, Ditko was able to make the complex simple by knowing what to include and what to excise. 

                                   Amazing Spider-Man # 15, August 1964. 

Ditko brought a sense of realism to his characters by not turning them into superhuman powerhouses (not that there's anything wrong with that - but more on Jack Kirby in future posts). Another early recollection is the cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 15, the elements of which Ditko orchestrated with masterful precision. Every piece of information adds to the excitement: Spider-Man in the foreground, struggling to free himself as his pursuer approaches. The park setting is established by trees and rocks, capped off by a city landscape in the background. Unlike DC characters, who often faced absurd or gimmick-laden situations, Ditko's heroes were vulnerable and their predicaments transpired (as in this example) on the borderline of possibility. The curiosity of prospective buyers was probably aroused considerably in trying to guess HOW Spider-Man would escape. I know I was completely captivated by it.    

Rarely did a hero get a beating like this in comic books! Spider-Man's rouges gallery, including the Scorpion, were a distinct threat - more like the maniacal Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947) than Superman's Lex Luthor. Ditko made this clear by Spider-Man's crumpled posture and with little touches such as his torn costume. It also made a strong point; that doing the right thing had consequences. Amazing Spider-Man # 20, January 1965, Dialogue/co-plot? by Stan Lee; lettering by Artie Simek; coloring likely by Stan Goldberg.      

Ditko imbued his pen and ink creations with a palpable sense of fragility. They could get bruised and battered (although, due to Comics Code restrictions they could not bleed, certainly not in 1965) and had to use their intelligence to outwit opponents. Ditko plotted out stories with a level of thought and deliberation that was rarely reflected by his peers. Revisiting his work invites new observations and further analysis in much the same way one studies the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock or Miles Davis.

The above page encapsulates Ditko's ability to relay information and distinguish each character with distinctive personalities, often refining them over time. Two examples that would be appropriate here include Aunt May, originally drawn as a heavyset woman and Jonah Jameson, whose mustache was trimmed to the extent that it gave him a Hitlerian appearance. Amazing Spider-Man # 17, October 1964.

Another aspect of Ditko's art that immediately appealed to me was his whimsical nature, accentuated by an almost silent movie clarity through facial expressions and body language, most notably the use of hands as a tool to depict emotions. Some of these techniques were no doubt mastered by studying the industry's greatest storytellers (including newspaper strips such as Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annnie, which were likely a strong influence on Ditko's artistic formation.) With the dexterity of a trapeze artist Ditko balanced fantasy elements essential to superhero comics alongside more down-to-earth situations. Whether it was Peter Parker frantically attempting to avoid a blind date, or, at the other end of the spectrum, plagued by doubts and fears that seemed insurmountable to a teenager, Ditko undoubtedly raised the bar in his chosen field.      

Ditko is an original. Unique, offbeat, compelling. Now in his 80s, he continues to draw comics. There are those who chose to denigrate the man on a personal level, criticizing his choices or seeking to invade his personal space. I've read too many articles, blogs and essays filled with distortions, inaccuracies and outright lies about the man which have nothing to do with constructive discussions about his work. I intend to pursue a more positive direction here.

Ditko's final panel to the Dr. Strange story in Strange Tales # 134, July 1965, is an excellent example of the artist's skill at composition. The reader's eye is directed to the solitary figure of the hero walking the dark, lonely streets of Manhattan. Much like his own distinctive characters, Ditko has always followed his own path.  

More on Ditko soon...

(I hope my efforts over the years investigating the world of comics and the creators who have made it endlessly fascinating continue to be worthy of attention and I thank so many of you who have offered comments and criticism.)  

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Bill Schelly: In Tribute

It will take a long time for me to get used to speaking about Bill Schelly in the past tense. His passion for comics took him on a journey throughout his life, from teenage publisher to author of countless books, chronicling both his experiences and shining a light on many important - and some often neglected - creative juggernauts. And it all began when a wide-eyed eight year old began reading a Superman Annual. 

When Schelly learned Richard Shields, a fellow classmate, also collected comics, a friendship began, which led to his discovery of fanzines, amateur publications that, for the price of a stamp and a few coins could be purchased through the mail. This opened a whole new world for him: as recounted in his book Sense of Wonder A Life in Comic Fandom (2001, revised in 2018).

"What's This?" I asked Richard, pointing to the sheet with the Eye character. "Some kind of comic book?" "Yeah." "Where do you buy it? I've never seen this character on the racks." I wondered if there were regional comic book companies that didn't distribute their wares in Pittsburgh. "Idiot!"  He said, laughing. "It's not like a regular comic book. You have to send away for it. It's probably printed like Rocket's Blast-Comiccollector." We looked through the copy of RB-CC which was duplicated by the same printing method our school teachers used for pop quizzes  and worksheets.  I didn't know the name of the process, but the print was purple.  We were captivated by page after page of advertisements for old comic books, some dating back to the 1940s. Shields let out a long whistle. "Look at this! Someone wants fifteen bucks for Captain America # 1!" "That's nuts!" I replied, shaking my head. "Who would pay that much?" "I don't know, but a lot of the other old stuff is only three or four bucks. I think I'll get some of 'em, if I can figure out which ones are the best." "That's too much for me, but here's a copy of Spider-Man # 1 for a buck-fifty. I think I'll send for that." Although the ads for much-sought-after back issues were fascinating, I was equally interested in the fanzines that promised information about comics of the past. Just the idea that you could buy a bunch of different magazines about comics fascinated me. What a momentous, mind-boggling development this was! My joy know no bounds!      
This soon led to the 12 year old Schelly crafting his own fanzine, in tandem with Shields, whose father had access to an early Xerox machine. The boys first effort was Super Heroes Anonymous. 

  Super Heroes Anonymous # 1, published in January 1965, was Schelly's crude but ambitious debut effort, which included a character he created: The Immortal Corpse. The cover was marred by a technical glitch; early Xerox machines were unable to reproduce solid blacks.

After the second edition Schelly devised a more impressive title, Incognito, which ran for two more issues (# 4 and Incognito Extra # 1). In this period he became friends with fellow fan/collector Marshall Lanz and produced two issues of a new fanzine, Fantasy Forum.  

Schelly's next endeavor was a concerted effort to up his game. He achieved that goal with the publication of Sense of Wonder # 1 (May 1967), which had better quality printing and a more impressive presentation. He and other talented fans wrote prose stories, comic strips and articles. Contributors included Ron Foss, Dick Trageser, Alan Hanley, D. Bruce Berry, Larry Herndon and John Fantuccio.  

 Steve Ditko's cover art to Sense of Wonder # 6, 1968. In his editorial Bill wrote: "Steve Ditko's Mr. A frontal piece is no doubt our finest cover; hope you enjoy it as much as we do. Thanks for taking time out from your various projects, Steve." When Ditko saw the published cover he wrote Schelly, sternly criticizing him for using color on a drawing he expected to be reproduced in black and white. Schelly felt Ditko had a valid point, and his words stung all the more deeply because a few years earlier he used, without Ditko's permission, a drawing of Dr. Strange in Super Heroes Anonymous # 2.          

A sign of things to come, Schelly wrote a six page overview of Alfred Hitchcock's career in Sense of Wonder # 6. Ditko and Hitchcock in the same issue. Quite a combination!  

SOW # 6 also included biographical info on the 17 year old Schelly.* It reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor ("Bill is 'known' for his advertising of fanzines that never come out") and quite a bit of wisdom. One of his ambitions was achieved with impressive results: writing books.  

* (An historical aside for those born in the past few decades. Technology in the early 1960s was limited. Making multiple copies of an original typed manuscript often meant using a spirit duplicating machine, a device that had a drum and ink which one put paper through. Schools and churches employed this device, and while the first few dozen  copies were usually clear, repeated use led to blurry, smudged and often unreadable results. For some kids producing fanzines on a limited budget it was their only option).        

As noted in his bio piece, Schelly was a huge Batman fan/collector, as evidenced by the above letter that appeared in Batman # 222, June 1970.  
                         Robert Sanborn's cover to Sense of Wonder # 11, Spring 1972

Larry Herndon's long-running fanzine Star-Studded Comics was scheduled to publish Ditko's Mr. A strip, but as recounted in Sense of Wonder, A Life in Comic Fandom, Herndon was going to discontinue his fanzine and asked Schelly if he had an interest in publishing it, noting that Ditko wanted to see it in print as soon as possible. Schelly was enthused and asked if Herndon had the original art. He replied: "No, and he won't send it either. He said he's had a problem with some fanzine editors keeping his originals, so he said to tell him when and where to send the original art when you're submitting the remainder of the issue to the printer, and he'll send it to him directly. " Schelly added: "I have Larry Herndon to thank for giving me the opportunity to debut the six-page Mr. A strip titled "The Defenders." Sense of Wonder # 11, Spring 1972. 

Schelly's review of the EC hardcover reprint Horror Comics of  the 1950s also appeared in Sense of Wonder # 11 

Fan artist Don Newton, who soon graduated to professional comic illustrator, crafted the cover to Sense of Wonder # 12, Summer/Fall 1972. 

  This impressive profile of Jack Kirby, photographed by Vincent Davis, accompanied Bob Cosgrove's essay: Jack Kirby, Modern Mythologist, in Sense of Wonder # 12. 

 Will Eisner, another master in the field of comic art, was featured in Sense of Wonder # 12. "Eisner and Co. by John T. Ryan, corrected and added information on Eisner's career following Raymond Miller's earlier essay on the artist. 

Sense of Wonder # 12 was to be Schelly's last issue. After a failed attempt to get a job as a professional artist in comics Schelly dropped out of fandom and comic collecting for a period of time. In 1982 his first book was published, a biography of silent film comedian Harry Langdon. He briefly became part-owner of a comic book specialty store, and rejoined CAPA-alpha (a publication which included contributions from each member which were then collated and mailed out to participants) in 1991. Schelly's first exploration of fanzines occurred in The Golden Age of Comic Fandom (1995) followed by an array of related books, most notable being his personal experiences in Sense of Wonder A Life in Comic Fandom. Schelly then turned his attention to crafting a superb series of scholarly tomes covering an eclectic assortment of creative personnel, from the revered (Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman) to the more obscure (Otto Binder, James Warren, John Stanley). Bill Schelly's attention went beyond artists, and included writers, editors and publishers, whose contributions to comics are all too often glossed over. His body of work will stand the test of time and be a valuable resource for future historians. 

Bill's memoir first appeared in 2001 and was greatly revised and expanded in 2018. Cover art by Schelly and Dick Giordano.  

On a personal note I was proud to have corresponded with Bill these past few years, discussing his many extraordinary books. I was honored when he asked if I could transcribe the Point of View discussions on Marvel and DC from the 1963 fanzine Hero which I had scanned and posted on my blog for publication in his Alter Ego column. He was a complete pleasure to work with and a true gentleman. Bill Schelly was an important part of comic book fandom, a true historian and a class act. Rest in Peace, Bill. 


Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Marvel’s Annuals and the Endless Summer

"There isn't anything quite as good ever. Nothing quite as good as summer and being a kid." Martin Sloan, as portrayed by Gig Young in The Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance", written by Rod Serling. Originally aired on October 30th, 1959. 

Those words echo through my mind when I think back to being a kid in the mid-1960s, when school was on hiatus and a seemingly endless summer stretched before me. The days were long and lazy, with plenty of time to explore back yards, enjoy neighborhood parks, go to the movies, play with friends and saunter off to candy stores for baseball cards, snacks and, of course, comics. It was around this time of the year, especially in the months of July and August, that Marvel released the majority of their Annuals*;  although dictated by the industry's awareness that most youngsters were off from school and theoretically had more coins to dispense with, it was nevertheless a fortuitous circumstance from a kid's perspective, as these were double-sized books starring their most popular characters. The Bullpen Bulletins page, which appeared in every comic, heralded their impending publication, and to an ever-growing and fanatical following (with yours truly being one of them), anticipation was high. Depending on their schedules, Marvel’s Annuals offered either all new material or a combination of original and reprint stories.

* From 1966-1971 they were called King-Size Specials, or simply "Specials", but everyone I know referred to them as Annuals no matter the cover designation. Nitpick Nick.    

This house ad for a quartet of Annuals saw publication in Fantastic Four # 43 and other October-1965 dated comics. The "On Sale Now!" banner wasn't exactly accurate, since some titles might show up two to three weeks later. In those pre-internet days fans often had no way of knowing WHEN these comics would surface at their local candy store!     

The first “King-Size Specials” I recall my older brother John buying off the stands at our local candy store* occurred in the summer of 1966. I was six years old, and the sounds of the Beatles' “Paperback Writer,” Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” and The Loving Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” wafted through transistor radios.

* For a detailed account of my childhood adventures collecting comics and other miscellany on the streets of Brooklyn you won't want to miss this monumental post!  Ostentatious Nick.
Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special # 3, Summer 1966. John Romita pencils; Mike Esposito inks, Sam Rosen lettering. Bottom portion panels from interior reprint by Steve Ditko.  The Avengers, Spider-Man and the Hulk. A little bit of Heaven to a six year old!
Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3 had the wall-crawling hero attempting to join the Avengers. In truth it was a formula story by Stan Lee, John Romita and Don Heck (inking by Mike Esposito) and wasn’t comparable to Steve Ditko's earlier efforts, and, clocking in at twenty-one pages lacked even a sense of gravitas. Another drawback was the lack of special features that populated earlier Annuals, likely omitted due to deadline problems more than anything else. One highlight was a reprinting of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 11 & 12, a Lee and Ditko extravaganza that centered on the villainous Dr. Octopus. It was probably the first time I was able to fully enjoy that tale, as my brother only had issue # 12 in his collection. Ditko’s art and storytelling were riveting as always and Lee's dialogue was equal to the task.
FF Special # 4; Jack Kirby pencils; Joe Sinnott inks; Sam Rosen lettering. The two Torch's meet and the battle of the century is reprinted!  
Fantastic Four Special # 4 re-introduced the Original Human Torch, who ostensibly began the Marvel Age back in 1939 when Martin Goodman entered the business as Timely comics with his initial publication, Marvel Comics. Carl Burgos' creation headlined the '39 title and would go on to become one of his best-selling characters. Like Spider-Man, the story was again abbreviated in length and apparently crafted because Goodman wanted to protect his copyright on the character. The reprinting of FF #’s 25-26, featuring the first real confrontation between the Thing and the Hulk, Marvel's two powerhouse monster-heroes, was a bonus story for the many fans who had missed it on the first go-around. This despite George Roussos' heavy-handed inking (in one panel the Hulk actually looks like comedian Buddy Hackett. Perhaps he was watching one of Hackett's many appearances on The Tonight Show when he was working on that page!)  
Other specials that summer included Sgt. Fury # 2 and Journey into Mystery # 2 (featuring Thor), both of which followed the same format; Marvel Super Heroes # 1, reprinting a golden age Sub-Mariner-Human Torch clash, along with early Avengers and Daredevil material, and, of course, there were titles that most boys wouldn't be caught dead buying, Millie the Model being one such example!

Millie the Model was an extremely popular long running title that starred in a total of 12 Annuals from 1962-1975. Stan Goldberg art and (likely) coloring, Sam Rosen lettering. Millie Queen-Size Annual # 4, 1965. 
The 1966 Marvel Super-Heroes King-Size Special represented a few Timely-era artifacts; a Bill Everett-Carl Burgos Torch-Sub-Mariner collaboration and Stan Lee's first Captain America text story.      

1967 was a return of sorts to earlier standards of quality. The Marvel corner box, which employed visual representations of their characters for easy reader recognition, was instead utilized with copy that emphasized: “All New – Not A Single Reprint!.” Perhaps editor Stan Lee took heed of fan complaints from the previous year, or there might simply have been more time before pending deadlines. Whatever the case, FF, Spider-Man, Sgt. Fury and Millie the Model returned, although Journey into Mystery (Thor) was sadly missing. New entries included Daredevil and the Avengers. While some of the headline material was weaker than previous efforts (the introduction of Psycho-Man and revelations of Sue’s pregnancy in Fantastic Four were exceptions), the special features, which included pin-up pages, “inside info” and humorous vignettes, offered material that was often missing from the monthly publications and appreciated by fans.  

Lee and Kirby make a most surprising announcement in FF Special # 5, inks by Frank Giacoia; lettering by Artie Simek. 
Stan Lee adds a dose of humor to accompany the masterful pencils of Gene Colan. Inks by John Tartaglione; lettering by Sam Rosen, Daredevil Special # 1, Summer 1967.

The 1968 Annuals included quite a few extravaganzas; the FF headlined the birth of Sue and Reed’s son (by Lee, Kirby and Sinnott); Spider-Man featured the mystery of Peter Parker's parents (by Lee, Larry Lieber and Mike Esposito); the Battle of the Bulge was re-imagined in (where else?) Sgt. Fury. (by Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers and John Severin, whose superlative inking was always special) and the current Avengers encountered the original members (by Roy Thomas, Don Heck, Werner Roth and Vince Colletta. Daredevil was noticeably missing from the schedule (likely due to the previous years unimpressive sales figures), replaced by the more-popular Hulk, in a rather weak entry by Gary Friedrich, Marie Severin, Syd Shores and company, but overall the product was substantial. The following year, however, would institute unfortunate changes.

Larry Lieber's composition adds drama to this page, in particular the "camera angle" of Peter in the last panel. Inks by Mike Esposito, lettering by Artie Simek. Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special # 5.  

A touching moment in the pages of Fantastic Four King-Size Special  # 6 by Lee, Kirby and Sinnott.  
Due either to lack of time or cost saving measures, the 1969 Specials were almost entirely reprints. It was a disappointment not to see extra length tales by Lee, Kirby, Thomas or Colan. Some of the material I had never seen before, particularly the first FF story and a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man # 2, both examples of Marvel's intriguing early efforts . A few pages of new material by Friedrich, Ayers and Severin surfaced in the Sgt Fury Special, which was a welcome addition, but it was only a taste of the glorious past.  

One of the few pages featuring new material that appeared in 1969, from Sgt. Fury Special # 5. Dick Ayers pencils; John Severin inks; Artie Simek lettering. Script likely by Gary Freidrich. 
The institution of reprints remained the norm, and after 1971 the specials themselves were discontinued; a lack of time and personnel is the most logical reason. In that period Marvel was expanding their line at a hectic pace, and while it would have been wonderful to see Annuals produced by the likes of Gil Kane, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Jim Steranko or Barry Smith, it was not to be.
Annuals returned on a regular schedule in the mid 1970's, but with few exceptions they weren't very special anymore. Page counts were down, special features were sparse, and top talent was uncommon. Once crafted with thought and care, they became little more than over-sized issues of the regular monthly comics.

  Steve Ditko's powerful staging and meticulous inking made his pin-up illustrations stand-out.
Lee, Ditko and Kirby understood that an Annual was a special event and often took pains to give the fans their money's worth. Although I didn't read them off the stands, FF Annual #’s 1-3 and Amazing Spider-Man Annuals # 1-2 remain benchmarks of what an Annual should be. The extra length Sub-Mariner tale and the origin of Dr. Doom were unique stories (a villain appearing in a starring feature was rare). FF Special # 3 was marred by its page length. While it was fun to see practically the entire Marvel line of heroes and villains in one story, the drama of Reed and Sue's wedding was largely neglected. The two Ditko-plotted and drawn Spider-Man Annuals were crafted with special care and is hard to top. 

Occasionally, on a azure-blue summer day, my mind drifts back to those childhood afternoons, when for only 25 cents I was transported into a world of fantasy and imagination. I suspect Rod Serling would have understood.    

If you found this entry of interest here are links to some of my earlier Annual-related posts:

...and for even more insightful discussion on Annuals go to Barry Pearl's Blog:

And Don Alsafi's Marvel Genesis:


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Joe Sinnott's Unknown Charlton Work

You never know what you'll find when rummaging through old comics. My brother John and I recently visited our friend Barry Pearl, who had acquired a collection comprised of titles from various publishing houses. Barry allowed me to take several 1970s-era Charlton comics, aware of my fascination with the oft-ignored company. A perusal of the contents in Fightin' Army and Haunted Love revealed the usual contingent of talented freelancers: Don Newton, Pete Morisi, Sanho Kim, Charles Nicholas, Wayne Howard, Jack Keller, Vince Alascia, and, of course, prolific writer Joe Gill, but when I took a closer look at the cover of Career Girl Romances # 63 (June  1971) I was puzzled. I suspected the pencils were by Art Cappello, a long-time member of Vince Colleta's studio, who specialized in illustrating stories for Charlton's numerous love-themed publications. No surprise there, but it was the inking that threw me. The rich, precise line was indicative of Joe Sinnott's handiwork; renowned by both fans and professionals as one of the industry's finest talents. For years Sinnott added luster to Jack Kirby's pencils on the Fantastic Four. When Kirby left Marvel he continued on the FF, and was also assigned to The Mighty Thor (John Buscema, one of Marvel's top artists, replaced Kirby on both titles). 

(An aside for those of you unacquainted with the details of comic book production, and I know of at least ONE person out there! The rest of you can move on to the next paragraph! In order for pencil art to reproduce clearly it must be completed in black (or more commonly called india) ink, using tools such as a brush, quill or radiograph pen.The artist who draws the story may also ink it, but often, due to time constraints, a different hand completes the job. Depending on his skill set and compatibility with the penciler, an inker can either compliment or weaken the finished product. An excellent example of the former is this page from Fantastic Four # 49, April 1966. Jack Kirby's powerful pencils above and Joe Sinnott's exquisite inks below.)   

Career Girl Romances # 63 appeared on the stands concurrently with his Marvel assignments. Many fans were largely unaware that Sinnott was also a prolific artist for Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact (a comic produced for Catholic schools and published bi-weekly during the school year) at the same time he freelanced for both companies in the 1960s. As far as I knew his last work for Charton had occurred a decade earlier, penciling romance stories and several issues of Gorgo by way of Vince Colletta's studio.  

The cover that started the investigation. Sinnott's crisp inking is evident in both foreground figures and background foliage. 

I meticulously examined the details employed on trees, clothing and shrubbery. True, there were other professionals with similar styles, but this looked "exactly" like the best aspects of Sinnott's signature work as evidenced in Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America and other Marvel titles in the early 1970s. I put on my Sherlock Holmes cap and began the search for an answer.

I first sought out one of the top experts in identifying comic art, my buddy Michael J. Vassallo (aka Doc V). In an instant message I detailed the info and sent a scan of the cover. Mike replied that he actually SAW Joe Sinnott and his son Mark that very day at a Convention in White Plains and was in agreement with my analysis. I mentioned that I was going to email Mark, who I had met on numerous occasions. I also inquired if he was on Facebook. Mike notified me in the affirmative and suggested I contact him there. I did both and waited patiently. A day later Mark replied to my email, confirming Joe's involvement. He explained:   

"My dad did a couple of covers with Art Cappello for Charlton in the early 70s. That is one of them. Art and my dad were very good friends."

Mark was aware of Career Girl Romance, and knew that Joe inked at least one other Cappello-drawn cover, Romantic Story # 111, and possibly more. All were signed "Art Cappello", leading many to assume he completed the artwork without assistance, but as I've discovered, a sole signature does not guarantee a one-man operation. With the likelihood of further undocumented contributions by Sinnott, my next step was to check every Charlton romance cover, beginning in late 1970 and into the entirety of 1971.

Charlton Press was the largest purveyor of romance comics in this period with DC in second place (Marvel's foray into the market at this time was minimal; only Our Love Story and My Love contended for sales). My first area of research was Mike's Amazing World of Comics, a website where you can search for practically every title published by either month or date of publication. The Grand Comic Book Database was my next destination; there I could study covers that were not in my collection. Alternate sites such as Ebay were also an invaluable resource tool due to the many dealers who provide enlarged photos for potential customers. This led to the discovery of eight more covers signed by Cappello in which Sinnott made contributions (with a ninth brought to light by Dennis F. Rogers). 

Listed below are the results of my findings, followed by some observations and commentary. If further unknown Sinnott embellishment surfaces I'll be sure to update the information here. All images are from the invaluable Grand Comic Book Database.

Mark Sinnott confirmed Joe's inks on Career Girl Romances # 63 and was aware of his involvement on the above cover from Romantic Story # 111, February 1971. He also noted that there might be others, so the search was on. 

The distinctive Sinnott style is most noticeable on hair and faces, particularly the man's ear. Teen-Age Love # 74, January 1971.

An awkwardly arranged layout doesn't give Joe much to work on, but his style is still apparent on faces and clothing. Love Diary # 70, January 1971. 

Thanks to the astute eye of Dennis F. Rogers, who pointed out this cover in the comments section. After finding a large scan to study on Ebay I agreed with him that Sinnott was the inker. There is very little to go by on the main figures, but the background sea, beach and sand have patterns that identify Sinnott's involvement. I Love You # 70, January 1971.   

Career Girl Romances # 61, February 1971. Charlotte Jetter lettering.

Just Married # 75, February 1971. The woman's jacket with its fluid lines, coupled with the building details confirms Sinnott's participation. Joe inked a total of four romance covers in this month.

Sinnott's details on buildings and trees display his craftsmanship. Teen Confessions # 66, February 1971.

One of Cappello's better efforts, it includes a soldier in the foreground, providing Sinnott with a figure he can embellish with gusto. Sweethearts # 115, March 1971.

With a title like "The Hippy and the Cop" what more needs to be said? Except that Cappello also drew the interior story, which was inked by Vince Alascia. Charlton should have assigned the art to Pete Morisi, who actually WAS a cop and moonlighted as a freelancer for the company! Just Married # 77, June 1971.

Cappello swiped other artists from time to time, such as the two background figures, whose poses are taken from a John Buscema panel or cover (possibly one inked by Joe!). Secret Romance # 13, June 1971

In a six month period (January-June 1971 publication dates) Joe Sinnott inked Cappello on a total of ten covers. After that period Cappello either did the inking on his own, or was assisted by Sal Gentile, who, in addition to being an artist, was also editor of the Charlton line.

One of the pleasures in researching comics is accidentally discovering something that has been staring back at you all along. Romance comics are often ignored by the superhero-based fan mentality, although historians such as Jacque Nodell on her Sequential Crush blog (highly recommended. Hi Jacque!) have focused a sharper light in that direction. While comic book aficionados admire Joe Sinnott for his embellishment of Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four and
Captain America, along with enhancing the work of craftsmen such as John Buscema, Gene Colan, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith and many others, and deservedly so, they often overlook his solid work as an artist going back to the Atlas era, on titles such as Kent Blake of the Secret Service, Arrowhead and countless war, western, crime, horror and fantasy fillers. Another area of Sinnott's oeuvre that escapes notice is his contributions to the pages of Treasure Chest. In an interview in Comic Crusader # 9, circa 1970, he explained: "I've also done the life stories of notables such as J.F.K. - Eisenhower - MacArthur - Pope John - Babe Ruth - Gene Tunney - Wright Brothers , and many others for Treasure Chest." Stories which he is justly proud of. 

Sinnott's beautifully rendered cover art to Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact Vol 25, #16, May 14, 1970. This was Joe's last cover for the comic, although he continued to illustrate interior stories until the company ended its 24-year run in 1972. While inking Fantastic Four, Captain America and other titles for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics from 1965 onward, Joe's true passion was in doing the complete pencil and ink job when crafting the "straight stuff," as he calls it. He was able to fulfill that ambition in the pages of Treasure Chest.

Joe's acclaim at Marvel comics is certainly justified, but his efforts go beyond the pages of superheroes. On a personal note, as anyone who has met him knows, Joe is one of the most sincere and humble professionals I've had the pleasure of spending time with; his warmth and charm is genuine. He is a man who truly loves his work.

Joltin' Joe Sinnott with Michael J, Vassallo at the White Plains Con, May 4th, 2019. Photo courtesy of Mike. With thanks to Mark Sinnott and Barry Pearl.