Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathan Frid 1924-2012

                "Our Revels Now Are Ended..."

Dark Shadows # 2, August 1969

Like the comic books, music and movies of the 1960s, television was very much a part of my childhood, and Dark Shadows was one show that left a distinct and lasting impression on me. The series had a lot in common with the comic books I absorbed, mainly the serialized adventures of the Marvel heroes. The trials and tribulations of characters such as Peter Parker or Ben Grimm were not very different from the struggles of Barnabas Collins as portrayed by Jonathan Frid,. Like the Marvel heroes, Barnabas was given special "powers" but he didn't want to have them, and didn't revel in his vampire role. To him it was a curse, and he only wanted to live like a normal person. These type of characters greatly appealed to me.

The character of Barnabas Collins was never created to be an ongoing part of the gothic soap opera. He was only brought on as a ploy to elevate ratings. It turned out, though, that Frid's portrayal was more popular than producer Dan Curtis could have imagined, and the writers had to find a way to make an amoral killer part of a continuing series. This led to an origin and softening of the character, eventually curing him and turning him into a supernatural Sherlock Holmes and defender of the Collins family.

Frid was not your typical leading man. He had a quirky nature that suited the character of a 175 year old vampire set loose in a world he didn't understand. He admitedly had a hard time learning lines, since the five day a week schedule was grueling, and the show was practically live, as it was then costly to reshoot  scenes, but the hesitancy of Frid the actor sometimes worked for the character of Barnabas, who was supposed to be trying to hide his true existence from the world around him. Barnabas was given to soliliques and introspection, not unlike a number of Marvel heroes. He was a decidedly sympathetic character and was wildly popular for the shows five year period.

The show instilled a sense of imagination in me, with its time traveling (past, present and future) glimpses of parallel worlds, and houses with secret rooms and passageways. Around every corner there existed witches, warlocks, werewolves, mad scientists and ghosts. All in a never never land somewhere in Maine.

Yes, the show could be deadly dull at times and had a number of poor actors and weak storylines, but at its best it featured offbeat characters and atypical situations. It was of its time, and most attempts to replicate its success have failed. The new movie very possibly may have the same problem.

Dark Shadows was translated to comics in 1969, when Gold Key bought the rights to the series. Since vampires were not allowed in a Comics Code approved  line such as Marvel or DC (even though kids could see vampires on TV every day in Dark Shadows and countless horror movies) Gold Key, which did not carry the Code seal, was able to cash in on the success of the show. Writers included Don Arneson, John Warner and Arnold Drake, and the book was drawn by Joe Certa. In 1971 a comic strip appeared, nicely drawn by Ken Bald, with assistance by talents like Wally Wood.

I had the pleasure to meet Jonathan Frid at conventions a few times, and he was an affable and charming person, with a great sense of humor. At one con a fan asked where the famous Wolf's Head cane he used on the show came from. He answered "Sam the Umbrella Man on 57th St" very matter of factly, which made us all laugh. And it was true. The store was still there in the 1980s, and they sold umbrellas and canes of all types, including the "famous" cane. Frid continued to do recitations and even had a website where he wrote about Dark Shadows, acting, his stage career and his current interests. Frid was always on the fringes of celebrity and never quite understood what all the fuss was about. He was a man thrust into the spotlight for a few short years, but he was very much a regular guy.   

A lot has changed in the 40 years since Dark Shadows has left the air. Television, movies, music and comics are very different, often slicker and more sophisticated. Still, there was a special feeling in the air that fades with the passing of each individual who brought their own personal stamp to the work they produced.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Odds and Ends

This time around I thought I’d take a break from familiar ground and talk about some comics that are not Marvel/Atlas related. Although my main interests lie in the early Marvel age, over the years I've collected, and continue to collect, quite a bit of non-Marvel material. At the last New York con a few weeks ago, attending with the “legendary” Yancy Street Gang (legends in our mind anyway!), I was pleased to have acquired a batch of comics, most in the $2-4 dollar range. Often at cons there is little variety for sale, but this time around it was quite different. This led me to buy a load of different comics, some on my list, others purchased on impulse. While I did buy a batch of Marvel westerns, I'll focus on some of my other interesting purchases in the genres of romance, western and mystery.
I knew very little about the romance line published by DC Comics, and had none of their comics for a long time. Most of my romance collecting focused on Marvel’s late 1960s line, plus earlier work by Jack Kirby. Jacque Nodell educated me these past few years on her excellent site, Sequential Crush, where she discusses romance stories from a variety of publishers and shows samples of the art (look to my favorites section on the right for a link to her blog). I’ve learned that DC often dealt with more contemporary and controversial issues and presented some quite interesting stories. I've also noticed that many artists know for their Marvel Hero art, such as Don Heck, Werner Roth and George Tuska, were contemporaneously drawing stories for DC. Often some of their best work was in genres other than superheroes in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, much of it for DC. They also either inked their own pencils more often, or were provided better inkers. John Romita was able to make the leap to superheroes effortlessly, but his romance output for DC was prolific and attractive.

Girls' Love Stories # 85, March 1962, John Romita art

The cover to this issue was loose, and I discovered that inside was a different DC romance comic, Heart Throbs # 76, Feb-Mar 1962, which also featured a nice Romita story, likely inked by Joe Giella.

You’ll notice the trademark on the upper left corner, which heralded the National Romance Group. This differentiated the romance line and was used in ads of the period. It began in 1957 and lasted until 1962, when it reverted back to the normal Superman/DC Comics .

"Too Late For Tears!" Girls' Romances # 103, Sept 1964. Gene Colan art.
This issue cover features a Gene Colan story, “Too Late for Tears!” which may be inked by Gene as well. Gene’s storytelling, expressions and body language are excellent as always. There is also a Mike Sekowsky story, possibly inked by Joe Giella. The Julia Roberts Romance Counsellor Column is particularly interesting, as a letter is featured from a seventeen year old who discovered she was dating a married man asked for advice. I doubt if a story would have been allowed to illustrate such a situation due to Comics Code restrictions, but the column certainly addresses a serious issue.

Girls' Love Stories # 158, April 1971. Don Heck pencils, Dick Giordano inks 
Dick Giordano often mentioned that he loved inking Heck, and it shows on this cover, as it does on many romance covers of the period.
The opening story, “Perfect Match”  is drawn beautifully by Tony DeZuniga, with great use of zip-a-tone and wonderful coloring. This story also took me by surprise. While Comics Code restrictions were becoming looser, this tale of a woman engaged to one man while lusting after an often shirtless laborer was quite graphic in its choice of words and visuals. How a caption like “A cold shock went right through me from my head to my toes at the touch of his hard, bulging calf” got through the Code is pretty surprising.
Young Romance # 170, March 1971. Dick Giordano cover

Dick Giordano drew some stunning covers, not only at DC, for Charlton's romance line as well. The cover feature was actually a two-part story inside, "The Swinger" written by Bob Kanigher and drawn by Werner Roth and Vince Colletta. The story centers on Lily Martin, who is haunted by the death of her boyfriend, who drowned after he drove away from Lily after an argument. Lily is plauged by guilt and roams the highways searching for peace. The story was supposed to be continued in a future issue, but I've not discovered any other stories published. Was this storyline ever continued? The story by Kanigher is interesting and Roth's art is attractive, with fine inking by Colletta. Roth was very good at drawing young people, and his work stands out in this story.  

"Liars in Love" Young Romance vol 13, # 1 (103) Dec 1959-Jan 1960  Kirby art
While DC took over the publication of Young Romance in 1963, the comic originated at the Prize group in 1947, under the auspices of Simon and Kirby, the fathers of romance comics. Jack Kirby was drawing monsters and westerns at Pre-Hero Marvel, but he continued romance stories at Prize some 13 years later, and I was lucky to pick this issue up, which not only has a Kirby drawn and inked cover, but two stories inside. Both stories appear to be written, drawn, inked AND lettered by Kirby, and while his art is sparse, with the work likely rushed out, as some of his concurrent romance work appeared to be, Kirby puts enough in to make the stories interesting, such as the above splash to “Liars in Love”. There are also two nicely drawn stories by Bob Powell, another, versatile, underrated artist. 

All Star Western # 8, Nov 1971. Tony DeZuniga art
There were some fine stories and artwork even before Jonah Hex reared his ugly puss in All Star Western. Tony De Zuniga shows his versatility, drawing a gritty western feature, Billy the Kid, written by John Albano. The rest of the issue features reprints by the likes of Joe Kubert,  Carmine Infantino and John Prentice, as well as a short 3 pager by Gil Kane and DeZuniga. Not too shabby a group.
"Lend Me An Ear", House of Secrets # 104, Jan 1973. George Tuska art.

DC always had a diverse assortment of artists on their mystery line, especially during its heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s, from younger artists such as Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson and Mike Kaluta to old pros such as Frank Robbins, Alex Toth and Gray Morrow. “Lend me an Ear” is written by veteran Jack Oleck and drawn by George Tuska, and it illustrates how good Tuska could be when inked well (by himself here, I believe) and when working in a genre other than superheroes. So many underrated artists such as Heck, Tuska and Roth did superior work on romance, war, western and fantasy stories, although much of it is neglected. With the help of the GCD I'm determined to track down some of their more obscure work from the 1960s and 1970s, and I'm sure I'll discuss it here in the future. This is not to say that these gentlemen didn't do some fine work on superhero stories as well, bit often the combination of uninteresting stories and poor inkers made them look less than interesting. On a well writen story then can excel, and  Oleck's tale of a practical joker getting his just rewards is worthwhile.
Red Circle Sorcery # 10, Dec 1974. Gray Morrow art

The short lived Red Circle line, a division of Archie, produced some very attractive work in a short 2 year period. Edited by Gray Morrow who also drew many stories and covers, these mystery/horror comics have some interesting twists. Marvin Channing wrote most of the stories in this issue, with art by Frank Thorne, Howie Chaykin, Al McWilliams and Jack Able. Morrow shows his ability to capture likenesses in page one of a two page tribute to Universal's finest Horror stars.

"Demon Rider" Jack Abel pencils; Wally Wood inks
 The Abel tale, “Demon Riders”, is exquisitely inked by Wally Wood, and is another offbeat tales concerning a man's conscience and its consequences. It’s too bad this line didn’t last, as it had many worthwhile stories and art.
And there you have it. From time to time I’ll concentrate on other comics groups and genres. There is an abundance of material to enjoy, appreciate and discover, and I hope you have as much fun looking under the rocks as I do.   

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Steve Ditko and The Lifting Sequence

For those of you who don't get enough of my musings here (there's no accounting for taste!), I have a guest post on Roy Rasmussen's excellent Comic Book Collectors Club site. I thank him and Barry Pearl for allowing me to revise my article on Amazing Spider-Man # 33, which originally appeared in Ditkomania # 76:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kirby Cover Discovery!

It's always wonderful to not only discover something new when looking through old comics, but actually get conformation from someone who was there. I've been lucky to meet some of the creators of the early Marvel period in person and occasionally go over their work. As a student of comic art I examine covers and interiors and find alterations by other artists, or uncredited pencils and inks from time to time. Some changes are pretty clear cut, others puzzling. Not every artist is aware of corrections, or is unable to identify uncredited inkers. Drawing so many pages, they sometimes have a hard time identifying their own work if it was inked by a strong hand, or perhaps rushed out. I've discovered that it never hurts to ask a question, and this weekend proved the point.

I attended the New York ComicCon with "The Yancy Street Gang", that group of scallywags that includes my brother John, Barry Pearl and Michael Vassallo (AKA Doc V). We always have a delightful time, and this excursion was no exception. Aside from getting some tremendous bargains, I was able to speak to some wonderful talents, including meeting Timely artist Allen Bellman and revisiting old pros Jim Steranko, Joe Sinnott and Stan Goldberg. These are not only fine artists and storytellers, but entertaining and thoughtful gentleman. They all have wonderful stories to tell and enjoy talking to fans. The greatest compliment I can pay them is that my resepect for them has grown considerably after I met them in person.  

As I was going through the dealers room I discovered some wonderful bargains, including many obsucre comics; westerns, romance, mystery. I bought a nice stack, and, since we had stopped by Stan Goldberg's table earlier, decided to let him sign a copy of Modeling with Millie that he drew (it also happened to be one of the earliest stories that then-newcomer Roy Thomas wrote). Although I never had a chance to examine the cover up close before, I always had a suspicion that the Millie figure was not by Stan, even though he signed the cover. The huge face of Millie looled very much like Jack Kirby's work. As I handed the cover to Stan to  sign, I asked him if Millie's face had been drawn by someone else. He immediately shouted "Jack Kirby!" drew that face! It is one of those moments that always thrills me. My suspicion was confirmed by the guy who drew the cover!

Modeling With Millie # 45, Feb 1966

Stan G noted that Stan Lee probably wanted a change in Millie's face or pose and asked Jack to make the correction. We discussed how important the covers were, and how different artists wold make corections. Stan G also mentioned that Jack Kirby once inked one of HIS drawings on a Stan Lee Golf book that featured photos, captions and cartoons. Doc V has that book, and I mentioned to him that Kirby may have done some of the cartoons. In the future we'll have to show the book to Stan G and have him identify the drawing. 

As Stan looked inside the book he explained to me that he only inked the fashion pages in that period. The inker was not always identified in the romance and teen humor titles. As I was looking at the interior along with him I mentioned John Tartaglione might be the unidentified inker on the rest of the book. He confirmed that it was indeed Tartaglione (another discovery). As a GCD indexer I added the information to their site.    

Stan G is not only a gentlemen, he is also a funny guy and still extremely prolific. At the con he was drawing sketch after sketch for fans, and we discussed his latest job. The funniest moment was when he told me: "You know, I was thinking of you guys  (the Yancy Street Gang) when I was drawing the Three Stooges." Well, aside from getting poked in the eye from Stan G, what more could we ask for?