Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Marvel’s Annuals and the Endless Summer

When I was growing up in the mid-1960's Annuals (then called “King-Size Specials” although I always found the word Annual to be more substantial) were a special treat. With school out and the endless summer ahead, there was time to enjoy lazy days filled with exploring the outdoors, going to the movies, spending time with friends and - of course - reading comics. A trip to the candy store from June-August meant that Marvel would be putting out their latest yearly extravaganzas, an “extra” issue of their top monthly comics. The Bullpen Bulletins heralded their arrival, although we never knew what day they would actually show up, so anticipation was strong. Depending on their schedules, Marvel’s Specials featured either all new material or a combination of new and reprint stories.
The first “King-Size Specials” I recall my brother John buying off the stands was 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.

Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3, Summer 1966. Romita pencils; Esposito inks. The Avengers, Spider-Man and the Hulk. What more could a six year old ask for?? 
Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3 featured Spidey attempting to join the Avengers. It wasn’t the greatest story, only clocked in at 20 pages and, unlike earlier Annuals, special features were nowhere in sight. It DID include reprints of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 11 & 12, a two-part extravaganza by Lee and Ditko with the villainous Dr. Octopus taking center stage. 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 was riveting as always and Lee's dialogue was equal to the task.

FF Special # 4; Kirby pencils; Sinnott inks. All this and the battle of the century reprinted!  
Fantastic Four Special # 4 presented a story that re-introduced the Original Human Torch. Again, the tale was abbreviated in length, but as interesting as that story was, the real treat was the reprint of FF #’s 25-26 featuring the classic Thing vs Hulk battle. Despite the less than stellar inking of George Roussos (the Hulk actually looked like comedian Buddy Hackett in one panel! Perhaps Roussos was watching one of his many appearances on The Tonight Show when he working on that page) it was a dramatic and action-packed story.
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 battle, along with early Avengers and Daredevil material, and, of course, there were those specials boys didn't even think of buying, like Millie the Model, but what did we know?
1967 was a return to glory, with the specials cover billed as “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 room deadline wise. 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 remained a treat: pin-up pages, “inside info” and humorous vignettes. It was a thoroughly enjoyable feast. 

Stan Lee adds a dose of humor to accompany the masterful pencils of Gene Colan (inked by John Tartaglione), from Daredevil Special # 1, Summer 1967.
1968 featured more of the same, including the birth of Sue and Reed’s son and the mystery of Peter Parker's parents. The Avengers had an extravaganza authored by Roy Thomas, nicely drawn by Werner Roth and Don Heck (“The new Avengers vs the Old Avengers”), but Daredevil was missing from the schedule (likely due to the previous specials weak sales figures). Sgt. Fury told the story of the Battle of the Bulge, by Freidrich and Ayers, with John Severin’s superlative inks. It was quite a ride, but the following year would institute unfortunate changes.
Lee and Kirby make a most surprising announcement in FF Special # 5, inks by Frank Giacoia.
Due either to lack of time or cost saving measures, the 1969 Specials were almost all 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 aforementioned Sgt Fury Special, which was a welcome addition, but it was only a taste of the glorious past.  

One of the few pages of new material in 1969 appeared in Sgt. Fury Special # 5. Ayers/Severin art, Freidrich likely scripting. 
The institution of reprints remained the norm for many years, and after 1971 the specials themselves were eliminated: again, a lack of time and personnel was likely the case. Marvel was growing at a hectic pace, and while it would have been wonderful to see Annuals 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 rarely used. Annuals became little more than over-sized issues of the regular comics.

                Steve Ditko's meticulous inking made these pin-up pages a particular treat
Lee, Ditko and Kirby understood that an Annual was a special event and they 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 long Sub-Mariner tale and the origin of Dr. Doom were unique stories. How many times did a villain star in a story? (FF Special # 3 was marred by a lack of pages. While it was fun to see the FF tale overflowing with heroes and villains, the chance to focus on Reed and Sue's wedding was largely ignored). Spider-Man’s battle with the Sinister Six; his encounter with Dr. Strange; the special pages drawn with loving delicacy and care by Steve Ditko - presented a degree of craft that was evident on the printed page.
There are moments in time that echo with vivid sensations. Long ago summers and afternoons that stretched out to eternity. Occasionally, on a clear blue summer day, I can almost - though not quite - imagine what it was like...once upon a time.     

For More insightful discussion on Annuals go to Barry Pearl's Blog:

And Don Alsafi's Marvel Genesis:


Monday, July 2, 2012

Appreciating Don Heck

My introduction to Don Heck’s art occured in the mid-1960s, when he was associated primarily with Marvel Comics super-heroes including Iron-Man, Ant-Man, the Avengers, X-Men and Captain Marvel. Through reprints in Fantasy Masterpieces I discovered that Heck produced interesting work in the pre-hero fantasy stories. Still, it was his art on the early issues of Tales of Suspense (which, for a time, was dramatically sub-titled “the Power of Iron-Man”) that impressed me the most, although his later run on Avengers was a close second artistically.

Don Heck’s earliest work appeared in 1952 at Comic Media, in titles such as Weird Terror, Horrific and Danger. Heck had a strong, clean line inspired by Milton Caniff. Focusing on crime and horror, Heck created simple, striking covers for the company. A memorable early Heck job was on Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, adapted from a then current TV series starring Buster Crabbe.

Heck's dynamic cover to Danger # 11, Aug 1954

A nicely composed early page from Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion, circa 1955

By 1954 Heck began a long association with Marvel (then known as Atlas). Stan Lee put him to work on westerns, war, horror, crime, romance, jungle tales – you name it – and Heck did all of them with style. Heck even had a continuing feature in Navy Action (Torpedo Taylor). Heck’s war stories were particularly strong; his visual dynamics came through in these tales of heroic adventure.

Beautifully composed page from "Torpedo" Taylor, "Get that Sub!" page 2, from Navy Combat # 10, Dec 1956

Although he wasn’t associated with any main character, his five page western features, appeared in such titles as Gunsmoke Western, Kid Colt, Wyatt Earp and Two Gun Western, While not as detailed or authentic as John Severin, his westerns were dramatic and appealing. One book that Heck excelled on was the one shot Police Badge # 479 (Sept 1955). Heck drew two stories featuring a rookie cop, and he produced an exciting strip that featured dynamic layouts, attractive pencils and atmospheric inks.

atmospheric splash to "Night Rain", Police Badge # 479, Sept 1955

Heck could switch gears easily, showing an eye for fashion, design and attractive woman in books such as Love Romances. Heck was also excellent in fantasy and space opera, as witnessed in Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Heck designed interesting space effects in stories such as “Rocket Ship X” (Strange Tales # 69, June 1959). The splash page emphasizes a sharp eye for spotting blacks and the story is nicely composed throughout.

Rocket Ship X-200, Strange Tales # 69, June 1959

Two pages that highlight Heck's cinematic eye, character types and expressive mood. "Something Lurks in the Fog!", pages 3 & 4, from Tales of Suspense # 24, Dec 1961  

While still working on fantasy stories, Lee required Heck to get involved in the growing super-hero line. Kirby couldn’t physically draw every book, and although he had worked on the initial design of Iron-Man, it was Heck who drew his initial appearance and reportedly designed the character of Tony Stark (visually patterned after actor Errol Flynn). Heck’s Iron-Man stories had a strong sense of design and a strong eye for placement of black areas. Heck drew interesting looking characters, and excelled at portraying attractive females (John Romita, no slouch in that department, rates Heck highly). Heck brought the characters of not only Tony Stark, but the supporting characters of Happy Hogan (a stoic chap whose appearance may have been influenced by comedian Buster Keaton) and Pepper Potts (her early incarnation inspired by actress Ann B. Davis) to life.

Heck’s art shone in the early days of the strip. Particular favorites include “The Mad Pharaoh” (Tales of Suspense # 44) where his line showed a distinct Alex Toth influence; a classy two part Mandarin story (Suspense #’s 54 & 55) featuring a striking splash page of Iron-Man hovering above the streets. The conclusion included a special feature:  “All about Iron-Man” which Heck went to town with employing crisp, striking inks; and the introduction of the Unicorn, an attractively designed villain. All of Heck's penciled and inked Iron-Man stories are worth seeking out - they include some of his very best work in the super hero genre.

An Alex Toth influence clearly shines through in this page from the Iron-Man story "The Mad Pharoah!" Tales of Suspense # 44, Aug 1963  

Iron-Man floats above the crowds, splash page from Tales of Suspense # 54, June 1964

When Stan Lee needed more production from Heck, others would be called on to ink his pencils, with varied results. With few exceptions (such as Frank Giacoia), Heck looked best inking Heck. While Heck did not have the intensity of a Jack Kirby (few did) he had an appealing style, and his solo work on the Avengers is noteworthy. Since most of his issues focused on a core group of Captain America, Hawkeye, Goliath, the Wasp and occasional appearances by Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Heck was able to concentrate on the characters and not be overwhelmed by cramming too many heroes onto the pages (as often happened in team books). Concurrent with his Marvel work Heck also had assignments at Gold Key (The Man from Uncle; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Twilight Zone; Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery) .  

Heck inks George Tuska pencils, an artist who would follow Heck and Gene Colan for a long run on Iron-Man beginning in 1968. Heck was a stylish inker and would have served Tuska well embellishing Iron-Man, or visa-versa. "Captives of the Mirage", The Twilight Zone # 6, Feb 1964. Tuska and Heck also get to draw host Rod Serling!  

After the Avengers, Heck would rarely be given the opportunity to ink his own pencils, and his work suffered accordingly. As the years wore on, he became Marvel’s resident utility artist; laying out stories for others such as Werner Roth on X-Men or finishing layouts over Romita’s Spider-Man. While serviceable, it detracted from his individual qualities. Occasionally, Heck would be given an interesting assignment, such as Captain Marvel, Captain Savage, or anthology stories in Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness. He was even graced with compatable inkers, such as Syd Shores, Vince Colletta and, on one occasion, John Severin.

Heck went to work for DC in the early 1970s and was better serviced, inking his own pencils at times, or teamed with exceptional inkers like Dick Giordano (Giordano loved inking Heck, and did many romance covers).

Heck's eye for contemporary fashions and attractive women is evident on this cover, inked by Dick Giordano, from Girls' Romances # 156, Apr 1971

 Heck also drew many attractive Bat-Girl back-ups. In the mid-1970s, back at Marvel, he rendered a few superior jobs on Giant Size Dracula and a Giant Size Defenders that Steve Gerber wrote and highly praised, As the 1970s wore on, though, both his assignments and inkers were less than acceptable, and his work fell out of favor. Heck often inked others work, usually in a scratchy, loose style that lacked the solid blacks that enhanced his earlier work. As Heck moved into the 1980s his inking improved, and he was occasionally given the opportunity to ink his pencils, notably on a run of the Flash.  

An example of Heck's late era work that has a distinct charm and proves how good an artist he was. Illustration from "The Virginian", Adventure Illustrated # 1, Winter 1981 

Western and Superhero genres meet in this nicely composed page featuring Green Lantern and Jonah Hex, from Justice League of America # 199, Feb 1982. Attractive inking by Brett Breeding.  

In DC Challenge # 9, July 1986, Don Heck gets to pencil and ink some classic characters. On this page we see Jimmy Olson, Adam Strange, Deadman, Blackhawk and Woozy Winks! The story also featured Chalengers of the Unknown, Metron, Enemy Ace, Dr. Fate, Plastic Man and cameos of Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robertson, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper and Harpo Marx! I kid you not!  

Don Heck did some exceptional work in his 30 plus year career (Heck passed away on February 23, 1995). Although influenced by Caniff, his style eventually became recognizable and individual. Unjustly and often cruelly denounced by the fan press in his later years, Heck was deeply wounded by these assaults. In retrospect Heck deserves recognition as a distinctive artist who performed his greatest work in genres other than superheroes. While these genres were often overlooked in the past, they are now preserved in hardcover editions such as Marvel Masterworks. His Atlas era art is a joy to behold, and many are finally experiencing the quality of an artist who received little respect working in the shadow of Jack Kirby. Removed from that shadow, a talented craftsman is finally revealed.
This is a revision of an article that originally appeared in Alter Ego # 42. 

Ditko's Gwen Stacy

My essay, originally published in Ditkomania # 79, can be read on this wonderful site that I'm proud to be associated with:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Unaltered cover to Modeling with Millie # 45-UPDATE

While re-reading an interview with Stan Goldberg that appeared in Alter Ego # 18, (October 2002) I came across this cover that was reproduced, with commentary likely by Roy Thomas:

Original cover to Modeling with Millie # 45 featuring Stan Goldberg's Millie figure.

                  Printed cover with pasted on Millie figure by Jack Kirby. .

In an email Roy Thomas explained that he never had the Kirby art, which was on an overlay. Roy also found it odd that Kirby did the correction, but as he noted, Stan didn't have many options at the time. Kirby probably happened to be in the office when Stan needed the correction, and Kirby likely knocked it out in the time it took him to light his cigar. Now, it would have been interesting if Ditko had been in the office instead...

You can read more about Millie, Stan G and Jack at my original post:

Big Boy Update

I've updated my June 7th post on Big Boy, since I've recently acquired an issue. I've included a scan of the splash, along with some interior info.