Sunday, December 29, 2013

Marvel’s Forgotten Crossovers

When one thinks of Marvel Comics and characters interacting in their shared “world”, many assume this began with the early 1960's super-hero line, when Stan Lee had the Fantastic Four meet the Hulk and Spider-Man. While crossovers clearly grew in the Marvel Age, they didn't begin with them. Lee liked the idea very early on; one of his text features in the 1940’s had the Torch, Captain America and other Timely heroes meeting. The inspiration likely came from several sources. 

On radio the incredibly talented and popular Jack Benny had a friendly "rivalry" with Fred Allen and both occasionally guested on each others shows.

The Battle of the Century! Jack Benny (on the left) and Fred Allen (on the right) were two comedians who were friends since vaudeville days. Their jibes at each other lasted for decades, moving from the radio into Benny's television show.  

In movies Universal pictures successfully paired two of their monsters together in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943). They followed with more team-ups and genres even collided when Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein.

A moody scene from the first (and best of the lot) Universal studios meeting of monsters. Bela Lugosi as the Monster; Lon Chaney, Jr. as the tortured  Laurence Talbot. Both monsters would be an inspiration for Lee and Kirby's Hulk.

 Authors such as Jules Verne had supporting characters appear in different novels, and Edgar Rice Burroughs had Tarzan journey to Pellucidar in one of his novels.

              J. Allen St. John art to the 1930 hardcover edition of Tarzan At The Earth's Core

 Characters in pulps met each other, and television had early examples. In researching I discovered that Ann Southern’s character from Private Secretary met Lucy on the Lucy/Desi Comedy Hour in 1957 (both, not surprisingly, CBS shows). It's also interesting to note that other shows were often referenced on situation comedies such as Bachelor Father or Leave it to Beaver. These are often asides, but they were an easy way to promote other network shows, much like Lee would later promote his line with short captions.   

While super-heroes were often paired together on covers, they rarely met inside the pages. One of the most important exceptions was the confrontations between the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner in the 1940's, but when superheroes faded out in the latter part of that decade, there was little interaction between feature characters. For the most part this continued into the 1950's, although exceptions occurred. One crossover appeared in Combat Casey # 10 (June 1953), where Battle Brady guest-starred in one story (I'm Comin' to get ya, Penny..", illustrated by Robert Q. Sale). Both characters were written by Hank Chapman, which made it a simple procedure. The crossover was not publicized on the cover, and is likely known to only a few Timely-Atlas die-hards (Tom Lammers, who discovered and mentioned the story on the Timely-Atlas Yahoo Groups some years ago being one of them. Thanks Tom!)     

In the early 1960's Stan Lee was inspired to promote the "girl line” of humor comics and did so with gusto.

Millie the Model # 103, July 1961. Before Fantastic Four made it's way to the newsstands the following month, Lee had Patsy Walker guest-star, including a large caption and Chili directly addressing the reader. Stan Goldberg pencils and possible inks/colors (with Al Hartley likely drawing Patsy) and Artie Simek lettering. Image from the GCD. 

In December 1961 dated comics (concurrent with FF # 3), Lee has a total of 3 cross-overs! Millie returns the favor and guests in Patsy Walker # 98. Al Hartley cover art (with a MIllie face possibly by Stan Goldberg). Artie Simek letters, Stan G colors. Cover from the GCD.

While it wasn't mentioned on the cover, Kathy # 14 has a 6 page opening tale by Stan's Lee and G entitled "A Visit to Patsy Walker".  

And continuing the cross-over event that month, we conclude with another Millie title:

Life With Millie # 14 has the Lee-Goldberg Kathy meet the Lee-Goldberg Millie in a cute four panel sequence. Inks by Goldberg or Sol Brodsky, colors by Stan G and letters by Artie Simek.

Millie introduces the story, giving Lee an opportunity to plug the other teen-humor strips. This is billed as the first guest-star issue, although others would follow. Millie's guests would not cross genres, although fictional versions of Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid appeared. Alas, Millie never met up with Spragg, the Living Hill or Johnny Storm (although it is established that Millie lives in New York City and Kathy is visiting from Ohio).

Although Lee's signature is left off this story, this was likely an error, as it is on all the other stories. 
Pencils by Stan Goldberg and possible inks by George Klein. Artie Simek lettering.

 Even the feature page has a guest star! Hedy wears attire that Janet Van Dyne would never get past the Comics Code (but was allowed here because it was considered a comic geared to girls). Millie notes this is in response to requests for more guest star fashions, so I assume other characters appeared previous to this page. Lee script, Stan Goldberg art and colors (with a probably Al Hartley Hedy face) and Artie Simek colors.

   Two months later, in Patsy Walker # 99 (February 1962) Linda Carter, Student Nurse pays a visit to Patsy. Linda was a new title, also written and drawn by Lee and Hartley, and her third issue would have been on the stands at this point. The title only survived nine issues, and it would be another decade before another comic starring a nurse appeared at Marvel, Night Nurse, which lasted an even shorter four issues (now if only Linda would have gotten a job with a Doctor named Blake....)

Stan Lee clearly enjoyed promoting a line of titles and creating a "world" where characters interacted. This was quite easy when he was at the helm, and could easily coordinate such events. As superheroes became popular it made sense to do the same for them. At it's best it was entertaining and brought a sense of excitement to its audience. The small moments, when a character appeared in one panel or in his civilian identity were subtle. In later years the crossover idea grew to epic (and nonsensical) proportions, where anything goes and anyone can meet, no matter how preposterous. Once upon a time, though, there was a sense of understated charm orchestrated by a small group of individuals whose special touch made comics worth seeking out and enjoying. 

  An ad for Marvel's line of humor and teen titles, from Millie the Model Annual # 1, 1962 by Lee and Goldberg.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Werner Roth, Herb Trimpe and Kid Colt Outlaw

Werner Roth began working for Martin Goodman's line in 1950. A versatile artist, Roth produced quality work in many genres, including crime, war, western, romance and adventure. Some of the characters and features he was associated with include Apache Kid, Matt Slade, Venus, "Jet Dixon" and Lorna, Jungle Girl. When work dried up at Atlas in 1957 Roth (along with Gene Colan and John Romita) migrated to DC, where he drew romance stories in titles such as Secret Hearts, Young Love, Falling in Love and Young Romance. Roth was skilled at drawing attractive women, which served him well for many years. In 1965 he sought to rejoin a growing Marvel and was rehired by Stan Lee, where he worked over Jack Kirby's layouts on X-Men before taking over full pencils. Roth continued on the strip for two years, working for other companies from time to time, including Gold Key and King comics. In-between his X-Men gig, he was also assigned work on a few Sub-Mariner stories in Tales to Astonish, as well as a short run on Kid Colt Outlaw. 

On Kid Colt he was inked by a newcomer to comics, Herb Trimpe. Trimpe began his career assisting artist Tom Gill, who worked for Dell. Trimpe's first work for Marvel appeared in 1967, and his training consisted of penciling western fillers and the lead stories in two issues of Kid Colt Outlaw (#'s 134 & 135). Trimpe showed great promise and had  a strong eye for storytelling. One way of learning the Marvel style of dynamics was inking other artists, and Trimpe was soon assigned inking jobs over Dick Ayers (Ghost Rider # 7) and Marie Severin ("Dr. Strange") and, most importantly, "The Hulk", a character he would soon inherit and become closely associated with. To read more on Trimpe's career, latch on to Alter Ego # 124.

An impressive cover by the talented Werner Roth on his debut issue of Kid Colt Outlaw. Herb Trimpe's inking is a complimentary addition. Artie Simek letters, Colors possibly by Stan Goldberg. Kid Colt # 138, January 1968.  

I emailed Herb Trimpe way back in Sept 23, 2003, when I was working on my article on Roth that appeared in Alter Ego # 42, although he never met the man, he did discuss his inking:

"The only thing I remember is how clean his pencils were, and I think they were over layouts in blue pencil. He was easy to ink, just connect the dots."

Dynamic splash page to Roth's first Kid Colt story, inked by Herb Trimpe, who does a splendid job "connecting the dots"

An example of Roth's command of layout and pacing. "The Avenging Son", Gary Friedrich script, Al Kurzok letters, Trimpe inks. The second story from the aforementioned Kid Colt # 138.  

Roth and Trimpe's second and final Kid Colt cover. After this issue Kid Colt was cancelled for a period, resuming publication after an 18 month gap, although only in reprint form (# 140 included a Roth inventory story inked by Vince Colletta). Trimpe, however continued to draw a slew of exciting covers over the years, terminating when the Kid rode off into the sunset in 1979, Trimpe was at his side till the end, his last cover appearing on # 226, October 1978. Kid Colt Outlaw # 139, March 1968, Artie Simek letters.

Roth draws the reader into the scene, with Kid Colt in the foreground. Trimpe's brushwork is equally effective. The splash page from the opening story. the same month this issue appeared Roth was teamed with Herb Trimpe on "The Origins of the X-Men" back-up in X-Men # 42.

Roth displays his storytelling skills, with each panel flowing into the other with precision. "Showdown at the Silver Spur!" Gary Freidrich script, Artie Simek letters.

Kid Colt was likely cancelled abruptly and inventory drawn for issue # 140 started to appear just four months later in Rawhide Kid.

You can't keep a good "Kid" down, as the cover to Rawhide Kid # 64, June 1968, announces the (brief) return of Kid Colt. Herb Trimpe is on hand to ink Larry Lieber's cover, with Sam Rosen lettering. Trimpe also inked the lead Rawhide Kid story, although that combination was not as effective.  

Two Kids are not always better than one, especially when one is an impostor! "The Deadly Double", Gary Freidrich story, Al Kurzrok letters.

Trimpe's last inking job over Roth appeared in Rawhide Kid # 67, December 1968. The final Roth drawn story was presented in Kid Colt # 140 (November 1969) when that title was revived. At that point Trimpe was busy working on the Hulk, so Vince Colletta inked the story. Colletta would be assigned the inking duties over Roth when he moved to DC and penciled Lois Lane for a long spell, beginning with # 106, November 1970.   

Herb Trimpe became a solid craftsman, taking over The Incredible Hulk from Marie Severin and working with her brother John, who superbly inked many of his stories. For over thirty years Trimpe worked steadily for Marvel. In addition to his run on the Incredible Hulk, Trimpe drew Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. "Ka-Zar", "Ant-Man", DefendersGodzilla and Indiana Jones and many others. In 1985 Trimpe returned to the western genre, penciling a four-issue Rawhide Kid mini-series. Trimpe was often seen on the convention circuit and produced commission work. He was a hell of a nice guy who, sadly, passed away in April, 2015.

After the cancellation of Kid Colt, Werner Roth moved onto other strips, returning to X-Men for a period, over layouts by Don Heck, assisted on Avengers Special # 2, and a final western, the "Gunhawk" feature that appeared in Western Gunfighters. The majority of Roth's 1970s work was for DC, returning to romance stories, mysteries and, as noted, Lois Lane. Roth died of cancer on June 28, 1973, at the age of 52. Although Roth's style was more subdued than many of his peers, especially the larger than life "Kirby dynamics" that typified Marvel's Super-Hero line, his art had a quality of design and sincerity. Roth's son, Gavin, has also passed away, but some years back I was fortunate to contact him via email. He kindly responded to my numerous questions about his father and allowed me to publish his responses as a sidebar to accompany my article in Alter Ego. Gavin had this to say about his father's work method:

"Dad's training was more meticulous, starting with plotting the pages out, tightening it up, and finally finished pencils. When I say finished pencils, I mean that you could look at the page and the artwork sparkled. It had life; it was finished." 

On a personal level, Gavin made this observation about his father:

"He appreciated other artists' work and would comment of how he liked what they had done, and why it worked as a piece of comic art. I never heard him say anything bad about anyone. He wasn't like that."

I think that THAT part of his personality shines through in much of his comic book work.

Werner Roth and Herb Trimpe were from two different eras of comics, yet both were backbones of the industry. While their art was never flashy or overly decorative, they could tell a story clearly and with an understanding of how a page flows. They worked in varied genres for many decades and their contributions to the field deserve to be recognized.      

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Audrey Hepburn, Jack Kirby and a Cast of Thousands

Comic books often looked to movies for ideas, stories and current trends. Westerns, crime, romance, monsters and science fiction all filtered into comics. Simon and Kirby's Newsboy Legion were inspired by the Dead End Kids; Lee and Kirby's Hulk was a mixture of the Wolfman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the Frankenstein Monster; a horde of giant insect and bug movies were echoed in Marvel and DC's late 1950's-early 1960's output.

Many artists were also moviegoers; they absorbed the storytelling, cinematography and intensity of their experiences and translated them to a different medium, where - in olden days (yes, kids, there was a time computerized special effects didn't exist), their pencils journeyed beyond anything movies could conceive.

Character actors represented a diverse offering of personalities of all types: they often brought a distinct flavor to the movies. Artists took notice, and many a comic book were scattered with these familiar faces.      
And, of course, there were the movie stars, whose larger than life presence was another influence. There have been countless times I've looked at a comic and noticed a familiar likeness, either star or character actor, by artists such as Gene Colan, John Romita, Gray Morrow, Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane and so many others.

Jack Kirby was a confessed movie enthusiast, and those faces saw their way in his stories throughout his career. From Edward G. Robinson to Charles Bronson, Kirby had a cast list to choose from.  
Audrey Hepburn was a extremely popular actress in the 1950's and 1960's, well-known for movies such as Roman Holiday (1953), which she won an Oscar for best actress, Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957).  In 1961 she was in another hit, Breakfast at Tiffany's. I particularly enjoyed her performance in Wait Until Dark (1967). Hepburn exuded an air of sophistication, fragility and beauty, and her image sold scores of movie related magazines.


                          Stan Lee was also a movie fan, and often asked for familiar types, such as a Sidney Greenstreet villain, or an Errol Flynn hero. Lee and/or Jack Kirby took notice of the charismatic Hepburn

Eyebrows, face, gloves - look familiar? Kirby pencils; Vince Colletta inks, Sam Rosen letters, Stan Goldberg colors? No script credit, but likely a Lee plot and Lee or Lieber script. 
"By Love Betrayed" Love Romances # 102, Nov 1962

What's interesting is Kirby's image from the splash page is reused on the cover. Lee must have thought the Hepburn like figure was more attention getting than the three figures that occupy the rest of the cover (one of which is the same character). The three figures and background was probably reduced, cropped or otherwise altered, making the cover layout look odd. The new content was likely inked by Al Hartley. Sam Rosen letters, Stan Goldberg colors.

"To Me, He Was Like A God!", Kirby pencils, Colletta inks, John Duffy letters, Stan Goldberg colors? Again no scripting credits, although it reads like Lee (or Lee plot/ Lieber script) Love Romances # 104, March 1962. 

Two issues later Lee reused the Kirby-Hepburn face a THIRD time. Compare the woman in panel one to the figures above. The hair and clothing is altered, and the eyes are moved to the left, but its the same drawing. As has been discussed in depth in earlier posts, Lee often tinkered with covers and splash pages, and alterations were usually completed by whoever was available at the time. Apparently, Lee thought Kirby's original drawing was not attractive enough.

I believe there are other Audrey Hepburn lookalikes (and other famous actresses) scattered throughout the romance line. Don Heck drew her type as well. And I'm sure other famous figures "appeared" at DC, Charlton, Dell and other companies. Today, the movie-comics influence has come full circle, and film looks to comics to appropriate ideas, visuals and characters. Kirby, not surprisingly, is one of the biggest influences.          

For more on Audrey Hepburn and her films, check here:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Weird Western Tales and Jonah Hex

Comic Book Artist: With the Code changes, you could use the word "Weird," and boy, you used it everywhere!
Joe: I started using the word and Carmine decided that "Weird" sold anything. Weird War, Weird Western, Weird Worlds, Weird Mystery. We were pals and would share ideas.

 Joe Orlando interview with Jon Cooke, Comic Book Artist # 1

Since Weird War Tales was the first "Weird" title, edited by Joe Kubert, Orlando may have incorrectly stated that he used the word first. It may have originated with Joe Kubert, original editor of Weird War, or publisher Carmine Infantino. However it began, "Weird" had an effect on sales, and DC followed up with Weird Western Tales. All Star Western was an ongoing title that tried out a variety of new characters in an attempt to find one that connected with an audience. Early issues cover featured  Outlaw and Billy the Kid, with an occasional appearance by El Diablo. Reprints included Pow-Wow Smith, Buffalo Bill, Bat Lash and the Trigger Twins. Aside from some interest in Bob Kanigher's El Diablo, which featured art by Gray Morrow and Alan Weiss, nothing clicked. In issue # 7 the letter column explained that the title had reached the end of the trail, but it was given a last minute reprieve. Three issues later a new character was introduced that would become a success.  

Although All-Star Western featured some beautiful covers by the likes of Neal Adams, Gray Morrow and Tony DeZuniga, sales remained weak. All-Star Western # 7, Sept 1971. Tony DeZuniga cover. 

 All-Star Western # 10, introducing a new character: Jonah Hex. When  asked about the creation of Hex, editor Joe Orlando responded to the question of who created Jonah Hex in the letters page of Weird Western Tales # 26:

 "Jonah Hex was  created by John Albano and myself, and the artistic creation of the character was a combination of our talents and Tony DeZuniga's." 

In Comic Book Artist # 1, he noted :

"That was John Albano's concept. He came in with the story and I contributed to the character as it went on." 

While earlier western characters at DC were clean-cut or satirical (such as Bat Lash), Hex was a grittier type. With the relaxation of the Comics Code a cowboy no longer had to shoot guns out of criminals hands (even Marvel's Rawhide Kid was allowed to finish off an owlhoot or two). Like Conan the Barbarian, Hex was a violent character who killed his enemies at the drop of a hat. Neither attractive nor lovable, Hex was patterned after contemporary western movies, which grew more explicit in the 1960's. Films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969) were awash with bloodshed and violent images, and although comics could not duplicate those situations, they did move past their earlier restrictions.  

DC initially thought El Diablo might take off as a lead feature, as evidenced by his appearance on the cover of the re-titled Weird Western Tales, but despite his supernatural trappings he was soon returned to back-up status. Excellent cover art by Joe Kubert, Weird Western Tales # 12, July 1972. Image from the GCD.

El Diablo makes a second cover appearance in an attractively composed and subtly colored cover by Neal Adams (Adams may have colored the cover; he stated in an interview once that he penciled, inked and colored his covers at DC, although I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule). Weird Western Tales # 15, January 1973. WWT # 16 would be El Diablo's final attempt as a headliner; sales picked up when Jonah Hex was introduced and starred, as noted in the letters page of issue #15. The writing was on the wall, and starting in issue # 17, Jonah Hex became the lead (and cover) feature .

Weird Western # 15 also included two short non-feature stories. Westerns was one of Gil Kane's favorite genres to draw, and while he produced tons of excellent covers for Marvel's westerns, at DC he worked on  a few interior stories such as "Hang Him High". Jack Oleck script, John Costanza letters, unknown inks. 

An example of editor Joe Orlando's letter column, Trail Talk. Thoughtful letters and insightful answers made the letter page worthwhile. Orlando states: "It would have been much easier to put out "half a dozen "kid" titled western heroes - all fighting in improbable situations - and all exactly alike" 

Orlando was clearly pointing to Marvel's line of mainly reprint western comics, and, much as I like them, he did have a point. DC invested more effort into their non-superhero material, producing a high level of quality stories and artwork.

Tony DeZuniga brought a gritty feel to his western stories. His images in Jonah Hex evoke a stark and dusty landscape, and  it became the template for others to follow. "The Hangin' Woman", John Albano script, Weird Western Tales # 17, May 1973.    

El Diablo was the back-up to Jonah in this issue, but would make only two more appearances (WWT #'s 19 and 32). With the exception of a few fillers, Hex would star in full-length stories. Neal Adams, Alan Weiss and Gray Morrow drew earlier Diablo stories, but the versatile Alfredo Alcala drew this and two later episodes. "The Demon of Bad Rock Mountain", Cary Bates story, Alcala letters.     

By issue # 18 there was no doubt that Jonah Hex was the star. While his scarred face and huge eyeball could stop a clock, it sold comic books. Jonah's name was added to the masthead and the original logo was minimized. The wordless cover to Weird Western Tales # 20, December 1973, is an example of the picture effortlessly telling the story. Luis Dominguez was a prolific cover artist for DC in the 1970's, specializing in mystery, war and westerns.  

Another example of DeZuniga's effective art, in particular panel two, with his use of lighting and lines around Hex. "Blood Brothers", Arnold Drake script, Ben Oda letters, Weird Western Tales # 20  

An abundance of movement and dramatic camera angles highlight this Gil Kane penciled and inked page from issue # 20, the last non-character genre back-up to appear.  "Turnabout!", Sergio Aragones plot, E. Nelson Bridwell script, Ben Oda letters.

Doug Wildey was no stranger to western comics, having drawn the Outlaw Kid at Atlas for many years. Here Wildey uses rain and zip-a-tone effects to create a distinct mood. "Face-Off with the Galagher Boys", Michael Fleisher script; Russell Carley, script continuity, Doug Wildey, letters? Weird Western Tales # 26, February 1975. 

Michael Fleisher took over the writing of Jonah Hex beginning with issue # 22, and continued uninterrupted until the demise of Hex's own comic in 1985. Fleisher took to the character and produced a run of consistently worthwhile stories, aided by artists such as Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Vincente Alcazar, E.R. Cruz, Russ Heath, and a long run by Dick Ayers (teamed in many issues with Tony DeZuniga). For a detailed examination of Jonah Hex, including summaries of every issue and examples of the artists I mentioned, check out this exceptional site:

In an interview on the hex blogspot, Fleisher had this to say about his efforts on Jonah Hex:

"my work on Jonah Hex was indisputably my best work, and "The Last Bounty Hunter" was probably my most path-breaking story. For me, the experience of writing Jonah Hex was always close to magical."

Jonah Hex remained the star of Weird Western until issue # 38, when he graduated to his own comic. He was replaced by Scalphunter, a series starring a Native American, created and initially written by Michael Fleisher, with art by Dick Ayers and George Evans. the character lacked the uniqueness and dramatic punch as Hex, but held up for thirty-one issues. Weird Western Tales was cancelled with # 70 (August 1980), although the title has been revived from time to time. Jonah Hex was brought into the future after his first cancellation, of which the less said the better. In recent years he returned to his western roots, was given a new series, became the subject of a largely unheralded movie in 2010, and currently resides in an anthology title with a familiar name - All Star Western. Unfortunately Hex was again brought to the future - present-day DC - with its continuity and fantastic characters. Jonah Hex works best alone, on the fringes of society, not in the gaudy world of superheroes. 

The original run of Weird Western Tales is worth noting for its diversity in story and art, as well as being home to the early years of Jonah Hex. From a historical standpoint, Weird Western (and its earlier incarnation, All-Star Western) attempted to make the leap from the colorfully garbed cowboys that permeated the comics landscape to more realistic fare. At the least, it was a showcase for artists and writers who were uncomfortable with superheroes, and sought to create a world populated by ordinary people and settings. As mainstream comics became more fan oriented (and run by fans), there was little interest in creating quality genre material. Editors like Joe Orlando, Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert and Murray Boltinoff  excelled in producing such fare. Interest in superheroes became predominant (and one could argue myopic) limiting the playing field. The standalone comic and hero is a thing of the past; the identity and individuality it focused on is lost in endless cross-overs and universe spanning theatrics. The smaller story featuring a lone hero  is still an effective storytelling device in my estimation. Is THAT weird??


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Look at DC's Weird War

In the early 1970's someone at DC noticed that a certain word caught the attention of the buying public. This word was attached to a number of genres, including war, western, adventure and humor. This started with Weird War Tales # 1, Oct 1971, followed nine months later by Weird Western Tales (# 12, July 1972); Weird Mystery Tales  # 1 (August 1972) and Weird Worlds # 1 (September 1972), which focused on material by Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter, Pellucidar). "Weird" was also added to the long running Adventure Comics (although the indicia remained unchanged) for five issues: it was appropriate for the Spectre stories produced by Michael Fleisher and Jim Aparo (#'s 433-437).  Even the humor comic Plop! was sub-titled "The Magazine of Weird Humor". The only genre missing was Weird Romance, although that title might have raised the ire of the Comics Code (it would have made for some interesting stories, though!).

 Weird War Tales was the first DC comic to employ the sobriquet, and as you can see from the cover to the first issue, "WEIRD" was emphasized. At this point the Comics Code had softened its guidelines and was more lenient with the use of horror and words that were once considered taboo.

Joe Kubert provides an excellent cover to the premiere issue. Notice how large and ornate the word Weird is on the cover. Weird War Tales # 1, October 1971. Image from the GCD.

 DC was doing well with their mystery line and decided to mix some of those elements to the war genre. Initially Weird War mainly consisted of reprints, with new wraparound pages similar to those that appeared in House of Mystery, House of Secrets and Tales of the Unexpected. New stories also appeared, with work by the likes of Reed Crandall and Russ Heath. Sales must have been strong, since by the 8th issue Weird War Tales featured all new material.

     A moody page by Joe Kubert (art and story?) featuring the "seaweed creature", who hosts the reprinted stories by Bill Finger, Bob Haney and Dave Wood and art by Ross Andru/Mike Esposito, Russ Heath and Mort Drucker. New material included work by Len Wein/Marv Wolfman, Russ Heath and John Costanza. Weird War Tales #3, February 1972.  

Editor Joe Kubert's versatility extends to this impressive letters page logo. Kubert also replied to the letters. 

Alex Toth's use of black space, open space and expressions shines through on this page from the opening segment of Weird War Tales # 5, June 1972. Bob Haney story, John Costanza letters.

Russ Heath's superlative storytelling is apparent, particularly on the bottom three panels, with his use of shadows. The unidentified colorist compliments the work. "Slave", Willie Franz script, John Costanza letters, Weird War Tales # 5. 

In issue # 6 the format changed from 25 cents/52 pages to 20 cents/32 pages, and Joe Orlando took over the editorship from Joe Kubert in issue #8. Orlando edited many of DC's "weird" titles.   

Walt Simonson's first professional work, I believe. While a little crude, his sense of design and offbeat character makes the page interesting. "Cyrano's Army", Len Wein script, Walt Simonson letters? Weird War Tales # 10, January 1973. Early issues of WWT included a number of young talents such as Howard Chaykin.

Weird War Tales continued under Joe Orlando's editorship until issue #55, featuring the work of creators such as Robert Kanigher, Shelly Mayer, Tony DeZuniga, Arnold Drake, Nestor Redondo, Luis Dominguez, Jack Oleck, Don Perlin, Alex Nino, George Evans, Bernard Baily and Frank Robbins (I'm missing many of these issues, but if anyone has a particularly nice page from this period, feel free to send me a scan at and I'll try to update and include a few more images. Of course, you will be credited properly for your contribution).  

Paul Levitz became editor with issue # 56, running the show until # 92. Len Wein and Mike Barr followed, with E. Nelson Bridwell/Julie Schwartz credited as co-editors on issues 109-124. According to both Robin Snyder and Bob Kanigher, it was Bridwell who actually edited the book. 

In an interview with Steve Whitaker and Tim Bateman,  Kanigher explained:

"Schwartz was the editor of Weird War Tales except Nelson Bridwell did the editing."

Robin Snyder, who worked for DC at the time, was kind enough to elaborate with his first-hand observations on Bridwell's contributions:

"Each and every one of the final issues in the Weird War Tales series was developed, designed and carefully edited by E. Nelson Bridwell. He chose the writers, artists, letterers, colorists and constructed the book cover to cover but much of the run consisted of inventory inherited from Mike Barr, Len Wein and Jack C. Harris (I believe).
This is a fact. I watched him at work Monday through Friday. His office was across from mine.
  Bridwell was a serious fellow and all business.  He had few visitors other than myself, Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru and Gil Kane and an occasional writer or artist.

 I remember the day he was assigned the title. He asked if I had any ideas for it since the main writer, J.M. DeMatteis, had left the company. I suggested he call Kanigher and offer The Creature Commandos to him. RK accepted and called me to ask for necessary background and character information he might need. I assisted and/or gave Nelson a hand with a few features in almost every issue from #109 t0 #124. 

 I can recall his unique ability to catch problems at a glance, various corrections he made in my stories and his willingness to experiment and try something new or old.

 When he was told that the title would be cancelled to make way for something mercifully forgotten, he wondered if I had any ideas for the bitter end. I suggested a special feature for the editorial pages. That left one page open. I asked him to call RK to write a one-page finale to his continuing features, The Creature Commandos and The G.I. Robot. (Nelson surprised me in running two inventory stories I had written for his predecessor, Mike Barr.

 Nelson deserves all of the credit for that unique run and for keeping it going against insurmountable odds.
 Just why Julie and management would allow Schwartz to take credit for Bridwell's excellent work is a puzzle that may never be solved."  

As noted, Robin Snyder wrote a few stories for Weird War, and his lively, informative and entertaining letter column replies in issues 104-115 and 121-124 are a special treat.

A sample of RS's [Robin Snyder] letter column, from Weird War Tales # 106, December 1981 

Dick Ayers was noted for his work on Sgt. Fury at Marvel, along with numerous war features. Ayers also drew his share of horror, and here the two are combined. "The Blood Boat", J.M. DeMatteis story, Dan Adkins inks, Jean Simek letters, Jerry Serpe colors. Weird War Tales # 70, December 1978. 

Don Heck also showed up in the pages of Weird War. Above is an attractively designed page. "Frieze Frame", Paul Kupperberg script, Todd Klein letters, Bob Le Rose colors, Weird War Tales # 81, November 1979.     

Don Heck was no stranger to horror comics, and drew his share of monsters and ghouls in the 950's. Here he takes a turn at depicting the skeleton host for a subscription ad in the aforementioned Weird War # 81.

Tom Sutton drew a 17 page story taking place during the crusades. Throughout its run Weird War would employ the occasional longer or full length stories, including a variety of time periods, past, present and future. "The Ravaging Riders of Ruin" Cary Burkett script, Ben Oda letters, Adrienne Roy colors, Weird War # 92, October 1980.

And what would a post be without some Ditko content?? Steve Ditko contributed a handful of stories to Weird War over the years. Here he illustrates the stone statues of Easter island. I particularly like the imposing statue's face in panel 4. "The 600 Heads of Death!" Bob Kanigher script (one of the few instances that Ditko illustrated a Kanigher story. The second appears in WWT # 105, "Death's Second Face), Oda letters, Serpe colors, Weird War Tales # 95, January 1981.     

Dave Cockrum presents some Blackhawk-esque characters in "The War That Time Forgot" series. "A Gauntlet of Giants" Bob Kanigher script, Jerry Ordway inks, Ben Oda letters, Adrienne Roy colors, Weird War Tales # 99, May 1981. "The War that Time Forgot" was originated by Robert Kanigher in Star Spangled War Stories # 90, May 1960, originally drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. It remained as an ongoing (and often cover feature) until # 137, March 1968. 

Beginning in Weird War # 93 the title began to include offbeat recurring series such the aforementioned "War That Time Forgot", G.I. Robot (also created  and written by Bob Kanigher) and  "Creature Commandos" (originated by J.M. DeMatteis and later written by Kanigher). With issues # 108-122 the masthead was altered, minimizing the Weird War Tales logo to headline the Creature Commandos and (on three issues) G.I. Robot. Editorial apparently felt that a lead feature was needed to maintain sales, although the experiment only lasted twelve issues. 

Shades of Ray Harryhausen! Ditko strikes again with a three panel sequence of a skeleton warrior rising out of the sea. Back-up tales continued even as features appeared. "Raze the Flag!" Joey Cavalieri script, Pierre Bernard Jr. letters, Gerry D'Angelo colors. Weird War Tales # 104, October 1981   

Weird War reverted to its old logo for the last two issues (#'s 121-122), but sales apparently were not up to expectations, and after a healthy twelve year run the series came to an end with the June 1983 issue. Robin Snyder presided over a tribute to the comic in the letters section. By the 1980's genre titles were becoming less prevalent, overtaken by superhero comics. The same month that DC cancelled Weird War, it produced a total of five ongoing genre titles (Blackhawk, GI Combat, Sgt. Rock, House of Mystery and Jonah Hex). The following year they were down to three. By the end of the decade there was hardly a sign of war, western or mystery comics. Abandoned, but not forgotten, these genres were filled with variety and often featured solid writing and art. I appreciate them much more now then I did in my youth.

Special thanks to my good friend Robin Snyder for his input, advice and kindness all these years. 

Up next: Weird Western Tales          

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Exploring the House of Secrets

House of Secrets was one of DC's long-running mystery anthology books. Beginning in 1956, under editors Jack Schiff and Murray Boltinoff, the comic included an ongoing bullpen of artists including Mort Meskin, Ruben Moriera, Jim Mooney, Bernard Baily, Bob Brown, Bill Ely, Nick Cardy and Dick Dillin. Early issues included nice work by Jack Kirby and from # 23 onward an ongoing feature, Mark Merlin was often the cover feature. Merlin was a detective investigating supernatural menaces, often drawn by Mort Meskin, with stories by Jack Miller and Arnold Drake. Although Merlin was the cover feature, he tackled the usual assortment of monsters and aliens, with cover art by Dick Dillin and Mort Meskin .

            Mark Merlin on trial, accused by some nasty looking characters. This issue featured a 12 page origin story. Pencils by Mort Meskin; inks by George Roussos ?; letters by Ira Schnapp, from House of Secrets # 58, Jan-Feb 1963. Cover image from the GCD. 

Issue # 61 introduced Eclipso, a costumed hero/villain likely inspired by Marvel's growing popularity. Eclipso's initial story was by writer Bob Haney and artist Lee Elias, with a few stories by the great Alex Toth. Eclipso was soon promoted to cover star (HOS #66) with Mark Merlin making only four more appearances in that role.

Eclipso takes center stage, reducing Mark Merlin to a blurb. Dick Dillin pencils; Shelly Moldoff inks, Ira Schnapp letters, from House of Secrets # 66, May-June 1964. Image from the GCD.

After a 46 issue run, Mark Merlin was revised to take advantage of the interest in super heroes. House of Secrets # 72 converted Merlin into a costumed character with supernatural powers, Prince Ra-Man. Issue # 75 reduced the House of Secrets logo and co-featured Eclipso and Prince Ra-Man in separate stories, ala Marvel's super hero anthologies, and even had the two characters encounter each other. Despite some attractive covers by Bernard Bailey, neither character caught on. Eclipso was by far the more interesting of the two, even from a visual standpoint, but Prince Ra-Man was no Dr. Strange. The attempt to revive sales was unsuccessful and House of Secrets closed its doors with issue 80, Sept-Oct 1966.      

Almost three years later it was decided to revive House of Secrets (#81, Aug-Sept 1969), returning to a mystery/anthology format, with a more supernatural flavor. Editor/Artist Joe Orlando had experience on this type of format, having worked at EC comics in the 1950's. Dick Giordano took over editing with the following issue, remaining until Orlando returned in # 91. DC's mystery titles would have hosts filling the same roles as EC's characters did, although considerably less frightening due to Comics Code restrictions. House of Secrets host was Abel, the rotund caretaker of the House, visually based on staffer Mark Hanerfeld. Abel opened each issue, and usually appeared in between each segment and in a closing page. He occasionally interacted with DC's other hosts, including his brother Cain, from House of Secrets. Bill Draut drew main of the early segments, and had a particular flair for mixing the mood and mirth.    

 One of the many segments taking place in-between stories featuring Abel. Bill Draut pencils; Dick Giordano inks, John Costanza letters. From House of Secrets # 83, Jan 1970. 

Neal Adams provides effective inking over Gil Kane's powerful pencils. Adams style comes through, but does not overpower Kane's style. Marv Wolfman script, John Costanza letters. "Second Choice" House of Secrets # 85, May 1970.

Some of Marvel's well-known artists produced some of their better work of the period at DC, particularly on genre stories, such as this page by Don Heck. The "normal' settings and characters, coupled with Heck inking his pencils, add to a superior product. "People who Live in Glass Houses.." Len Wein script, Ben Oda letters. Many writers who went on to prominence cut their chops on mystery stories, such as Wein, Gerry Conway  and Marv Wolfman.      

An integral part of the mystery titles success at DC was the exceptional cover art produced by Neal Adams. Adams was the primary artist for the mystery line in the early 1970s, including House of Mystery, Witching Hour and the Unexpected. Adams employed covers which followed the same theme, including children (based on his kids) and a dog (probably his dog, too!). While not frightening, many had an eerie feeling, such as the cover pictured above. Adams reportedly inked and colored many of his covers, adding a distinctive look to the finished product. Gaspar Saladino letters, House of Secrets # 86, July 1970.     

Besides drawing the inter-titles, Bill Draut contributed many stories. Draut's clean line and cinematic storytelling add to this wordless page. "The Ballad of Little Joe" Gerry Conway script, Ray Holloway letters? from House of Secrets # 86. 

George Tuska was another artist identified with superheros such as Iron-Man, yet often produced much better work at DC. Like Heck, he usually inks his own work, and the sequence here shows how well his "camera eye" moves. "Strain" Steve Skeates script, John Costanza letters. House of Secrets # 86.

In "The Man" the team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito produce an outstanding effort. Andru's characters are often very stiff, but this works to his advantage in this tale of a robot. Marv Wolfman script, House of Secrets # 87, Sept 1970

Gray Morrow contributed to early issues and covers. Here is one such effort, penciled, inked and likely colored by Morrow. "Where Dead Men Walk!", writer unknown; John Costanza letters. House of Secrets # 89, Jan 1971.

Another expressive page by Don Heck. His use of blacks, point of view shots and characters work to draw the reader in. It should also be pointed out that the uncredited coloring in most issues is extremely effective, providing a mood that compliments the art. "A Taste of Dark Fire" Gerry Conway script, Ray Holloway letters, House of Secrets # 89.

Tony DeZuniga was another talented and versatile artist who used zip-a-tone to excellent effect on this splash page. "Hyde--And Go Seek" Len Wein script, Ben Oda letters, House of Secrets # 94, Nov 1971 

Another young talent of the period shows his promise in creating impressive characters. Alan Weiss pencils, assisted by Bernie Wrightson. Gerry Conway script, John Costanza letters.

After drawing nine of the first eleven covers, Neal Adams was followed by an array of talented artists, including Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Luis Dominguez and Nick Cardy. Cardy was a long time DC artist who lent his talents to many strips, including Aquaman and Teen Titans. His best covers were clear and simple, such as the above, complimented by the background color. House of Secrets # 95, Jan 1972.

I'm so impressed with Don Heck's work in this period that he rates a third appearance. Heck often strained at producing the overly dramatic super-hero style that encapsulated Marvel, but his confidence in smaller stories and ordinary people is obvious on this page. "Creature", John Albano story, Ben Oda letters, House of Secrets 95.   

..and in the same issue is the much more illustrative rendering of Nestor Redondo. One of the thrills of going through these issues is the sheer variety of artists and techniques: Don Heck, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Bill Draut, Gray Morrow - all different and individual. If you can't tell these guys apart something's wrong! "The Bride of Death!" Jack Oleck script.         

Since this was the period that DC went to a 25 cent, Bigger and Better 48 page format, they included reprint material along with the new stories. I couldn't pass including this Joe Maneely drawn story, originally from House of Mystery # 71, Feb 1958. Maneely drew a handful of stories for DC and this page is an example of his exceptional storytelling. If Maneely had lived, he could easily have drawn monster stories in the pre-hero Marvel period as Kirby had. Letters are by another Marvel mainstay, Artie Simek.    

Heir to the throne of Graham Ingles and filling the shoes of Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson produced a plethora of macabre covers for DC's mystery/horror line. As the 1970's progressed the Comics Code became less stringent, allowing artists such as Wrightson to create more horrific images. Four issues earlier Wrightson collaborated with Len Wein on a short story entitled "Swamp Thing". That might have made an interesting series, don't you think?? House of Secrets # 96, Mar 1972

One can't discuss the House of Secrets without mentioning the vignettes by the extremely funny Sergio Aragones. These one page cartoons appeared throughout DC's mystery line. Sergio was not only talented, but prolific, and one can see his "in-joke" if you look closely at the hurricane in the third panel. Abel's Fables, House of Secrets # 96.

The great Wally Wood occasionally showed up at the house, either penciling or inking. The story is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, Wood's aliens and layouts stand out. The last panel includes a Woolworth or "Woodworth" storefront, which was once a famous variety store, Wood often used it in backgrounds. "The Monster" Jack Oleck script, House of Secrets # 96.  

Mike Sekowsky's pencils may be a little hard to discern under Tony DeZuniga's inking, but the faces in panel one and the figure in panel six confirm his input. "The Man Who Stopped Time" Script by the prolific Jack Oleck. Letters likely by Milt Snappin, House of Secrets # 100, Sept 1972.

Tom Palmer is heralded as an excellent inker, and rightly lauded for his work over Gene Colan, although he was equally inspired over artists such as John Buscema and Gil Kane. Palmer wasn't bad as a solo artist either, as seen on this page, from House of Secrets # 100, Sept 1972. "Round-Trip Ticket" Lore Shonberg script, Ray Holloway letters. 

Delightful caricatures by Alfredo Alcala. While his work usually evokes mood and detail, Alcala shows how versatile he can be. Alcala worked in a lighter vein a few years later, illustrating the Marvelous Land of Oz Treasury, which was supposed to be a continuing series. It was wonderful, imaginative work that showed another side of Alcala. "The Night of the Nebbish!" Arnold Drake script, Alcala letters.

     Mike Sekowsky's figure work is much more noticeable when inked by Nick Cardy, even though the splash page has their credits reversed. The variety of pencil-ink combos is always interesting. "Not so loud -- I'm Blind" An early effort by scripter Doug Moench, who soon went on to work on Master of Kung Fu for many years. House of Secrets # 113, Nov 1973.   

Alex Toth is one of the masters of the form. His ability to use black and white and tell a story clearly looks deceptively simple. Toth produced his share of work for DC, and worked on a few stories in the first incarnation of Secrets. Is the character on this page a caricature of Julie Schwartz? I wouldn't put it past Toth, who had some altercations with the famous DC editor. "A Connecticut Ice Cream Man in King Arthur's Court" Michael Fleisher script (with Russell Carley) Toth letters. House of Secrets # 123, Sept 1974.

     Luis Dominguez produced many covers for DC comics in the 1970's, particularly on their mystery/horror line, as well as on westerns such as Jonah Hex. While not as dynamic as Adams or Wrightson, Dominguez did his share of fine images, such as this one, from House of Secrets # 125, Nov 1974.

    Frank Robbins stylized art has its own dramatic impact. Greatly influenced by Milton Caniff, Robbins produced the comic strip Johnny Hazzard for 30 years, also working  for DC, scripting top material like Batman. He occasionally drew stories, and this page is a good example of his skills; his use of blacks and panel to panel continuity is strong. Like Mike Sekowsky, Robbins figures and poses are not typical or attractive, but they have an energy. "Instant Re-Kill", Steve Skeates script, Ben Oda letters? House of Secrets # 125.

Steve Ditko illustrated two stories for the house. "The Devil's Daughter", with effective inking by Mike Royer. The tearful, pleading ape and the appearance of Abel in the final panel are noteworthy.  Jack Oleck script, Royer letters; House of Secrets # 139, Jan 1976. 

Sword and Sorcery, Ditko style. "Sorcerer's Apprentice" Ernie Chan inks, Jack Oleck script, Ben Oda letters, House of Secrets # 148, Nov 1977

Mike Kaluta's atmospheric cover to House of Secrets # 151, May 1978. 

Up and coming artist Michael Golden drew a few intro pages. While they disappeared for a while, they returned from time to time. Paul Levitz had taken over the editors role with issue 148, replacing the long run of Joe Orlando. 

"Love Me..Love My Demon" Suydam idea and art; Cary Burkett story; Ben Oda letters; Liz Berube colors. House of Secrets # 151, May 1978.
Finally, on one of my longest blog posts ever, we close out with an animated, playful and moody page by Arthur Suydam. New talent was always in evidence at the house, as well as perennial favorites. Appropriately enough, Bill Draut drew the final intro page in House of Secrets # 154, Nov 1978.    After almost another ten year run the house closed its doors.  

DC's mystery/suspense anthology titles of the late 1960's-1980's were usually filled with an array of talented writers and artists. They seemed to have a better feel for genre material than Marvel in the same period, particularly on war, western and mystery stories. They employed a diverse mixture of new and old talent and often came out with a quality product. The loss of those genres led to many new talents moving directly into longer stories, with less chance to properly develop. A shame really, because venues such as House of Secrets were wonderful opportunities for creators to gain a foothold in the industry and work with professionals.