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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Throwback Thursday - A really really brief summary of 1983's Vigilante ongoing series

[Everyday is Throwback Thursday when you moderate a webzine that examines comic books from 20+ years ago, however, this was originally written 3 years ago when we first started reviewing DC comics from the 80s on our tumblr. We just figured that with all of the recent hype about Vigilante slated to appear in the CW's next season of the Arrow, now would be a good time to post this. It's kind of humbling to look back on old articles and spot all of the errors/inaccuracies/generalized statements you've made. Remember, sometimes you can't move forward without looking back at how you started. Someday we promise to post the in-depth review this excellent ongoing series deserves - if it's the last thing we ever do. -J]

Vigilante house ad (circa 1983). Property of DC comics.

First, I want to say that this Vigilante has no relation to DC’s golden age Vigilante that appeared in 1941 (cowboy who rides a motorcycle).

I did a lot of research on Vigilante before I posted this, and found there were not that many reviews that thoroughly examine this series.After digging out my old back issues I have come to the conclusion that this may be THE definitive comic book series of the 1980s - I even created a new hash tag just for this entry.

Created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, the Vigilante was a character introduced in the pages of the New Teen Titans - which was DC’s "it" book of the 1980s. The origin of how the Vigilante came to be is a multi-issue sub-plot that concludes in the New Teen Titans Annual #2 (1983). From then on, the Vigilante gets his own series.

Despite being a spin-off of the New Teen Titans, this series is very much a stand-alone book. One of Wolfman’s main goals in creating this series was to keep it as realistic as possible, which explains the minimal interference from other established DC characters. I’m going to presume that keeping the series grim and violent kept it as close to realistic as possible (observe the newspaper headlines showing in the house ad).

It was a 'Direct Edition' comic (so it never wound up on newsstands) and did not carry the Comics Code Authority seal - which is fitting because the Vigilante shot and killed criminals. The ‘antihero’ was still a relatively new concept in the early 80s, and the fans were squeamish. This series was mired in controversy since the get-go. Fans complained about the cold-blooded killing and the Vigilante took a vow of "no killing" after issue #1. Fans then complained he was too soft, so the writers hardened him up again. At some point fans complained the Vigilante lost his edge and he became a super-hero for a while. Critics panned it for it’s blatant 'implied’ sex scenes. Wolfman wrote and edited this series for the first year, from then on Paul Kupperberg took over writing chores (presumably because Wolfman was busy with Crisis On Infinite Earths and other projects, but I’d be surprised if Wolfman didn’t quit because the readers were too fickle). Wolfman stayed on as editor and Kupperberg stayed on as writer to plot out one of the best whodunnits I’d ever read.

In my opinion, this series really hits it’s stride after Mike Gold becomes the editor (issue #35) and allows Kupperberg the freedom to write stories that would involve as many 80s action/crime film tropes as possible (yes, the protagonist gets arrested and imprisoned and has to fight his way out of jail). By issue #39 a “suggested for mature readers” label is added and the series gets way more extreme with graphic violence, implied sexual abuse, vulgar language, images of drug use, and nudity.

What really makes this series stand out is that it covers a lot of social issues that would never be brought up in a mainstream comic (ex: racial profiling, drug addiction, homelessness, immigration, inflation/economic downturn/jobs being sent over seas, child kidnapping, rape, pedophilia, the war on drugs, corruption in the government/police/law, homosexuality, terrorism, religious extremists, how vigilantism affects society, consequences of killing, innocence, etc…). Which in my opinion was one of the major hallmark of comic books in the 80s: raising awareness of what was going on in our culture/society rather than brushing over the subject and creating a false sense of security. This is NOT a comfortable book.

A few things worth mentioning:
  • Alan Moore was a guest writer for issues #17 and #18
  • Very subtle Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-in in issue #22
  • John Byrne contributed a cover for issue #35
  • Mike Grell contributed covers for issues #36, #37, and #38

Vigilante lasted until 1987 with 50 issues and 2 annuals. The adventures of the Vigilante’s supporting cast is continued in Checkmate v1 (1988).

I’ve had the first half of this series since I was a teen and had trouble tracking down the rest of the series until recently. Unfortunately, someone spoiled the ending of this series before I had a chance to finish reading it. I won’t do the same to you. Pick it up, now.

As of this writing, this series has not been reprinted by DC yet, so if you want it you’re going to have to go digging in back-issue bins. Rumor has it that it’s really difficult to find issue #50 - not due to it being highly sought after, but because sales were so bad near the end of the series that retailers were stocking very low numbers of this title.

Vigilante v1 #50 (1988)

Fun Fact: Apparently Wolfman was not pleased with the way the series ended, but had no say in it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

DC retro art of Amy Spaulding

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

One of our absolute favorite things to do at conventions (besides chattin' with comics pros, cosplayers and DC comics fans) is taking a walk through 'Artist's Alley' to scope out the wares of local illustrators and artists. We keep our eyes peeled for any art featuring DC comic book characters. It's really interesting to see how different artists portray their favorite DC characters. Currently, it would seem that *most* convention illustrators and artists are producing anime-influenced art, which I''m sure appeals to the gaming crowd [these are fandom conventions after all, so I'm sure artists are trying to hit as many audiences as possible]. That being said, I'm always drawn to art that looks "different" from whatever else is displayed en masse out there, and I'm a sucker for painted and mixed medium art. Amy Spaulding hits all of the above-mentioned points quite effectively. Visually stunning, her painted/mixed medium art stands out among the crowd and makes use of interesting motifs - really, who isn't a fan of the realist painted art [Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, etc] most prominently found in 1940s/1950s americana?

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

Amy studied fine arts with a concentration in painting at Queen’s University and then went to Sheridan for illustration. Sheridan is where she became interested in narrative visual storytelling and comics. In studying illustration she found her inspiration was in mid century pulp, pinups and advertising. Anything from Zane Grey covers, Gil Elvgren’s pinups, Robert McGinnis to 50s kitchen ads.

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

Amy's appreciation of female comic book characters is apparent in her art. Surprisingly, Amy really didn’t read comics growing up. "I devoured fantasy novels", Amy told us.  "My favorites were Terry Brooks’ works, in particular The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, Terry Pratchett and Tolkein."

"I really dove into comics in my late twenties and my instant favorites were golden age Wonder Woman and Shazam. They embodied everything I loved about mid century in terms of style and a healthy dose of kitsch. Wonder Woman is still my go to, I am obsessed with Cliff Chiang’s run at the beginning of the new 52 and Yannick Paquette’s work on Wonder Woman Year One."

"Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone are writers that have never disappointed me and I will usually pickup any of their projects. Pretty Deadly is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever."

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

Meeting with Amy at the Ottawa Comicon was a real treat, and I'm really luck I got to catch up with her. In the past few years she's been quite active on the convention circuit and has made appearances at Toronto Comic Con, Wonder Con, Megacon and she just got back from HeroesCon in Charlotte, NC which she couldn’t speak highly enough of. You can all catch her at Montreal Comicon in a couple weeks, Boston Comicon, Toronto FanExpo and Hal-con in Halifax.

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

Amy is currently opening up her commission list for Montreal Comiccon. Posts with price breakdowns are all over her social media and any more specific inquiries can be directed right to her email Commission slots can be purchased directly on her Etsy shop as well.

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

Amy also told us that she's working on some fun side projects that will showcase her love of retro kitsch. She has some fabric designs and tiki inspired resin jewelry coming out this summer which she will be displaying on social media very soon.

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

Amy's website:
Amy's Instagram: amy_spaulding
Amy's Twitter: @acspaulding
Amy's Tumblr: amy-spaulding
Amy's Facebook:
Amy's Etsy page:

Illustrated by Amy Spaulding. Posted with Amy Spaulding's permission

The Mike Grell interview: Jon Sable Freelance as the precursor for the 1988 Green Arrow ongoing series

This is actually one half of a REALLY LONG interview I conducted with Mike Grell on Friday, May 13 2016 at the Ottawa Comiccon.  I was a little nervous when interviewing Mike, so my questions were all over the place and didn't follow any real logical flow. For your reading convenience, I separated the interview transcription into two parts. The second part will deal exclusively with his work on DC comics characters. This interview was actually recorded, but the quality of the audio is a little raw, so I won't be posting it for all to listen to - but I assure you, it exists.

This webzine is very much DC-centric, and this may be my only REAL chance to gush about how great Grell's John Sable Freelance is (and possibly my only chance ever to interview Mike Grell in person), so please bear that in mind as you read through the rather long-winded interview questions.

To summarize, Jon Sable Freelance is one of those indie book (published by First Comics from 1983 to 1988) that nobody seems to have read, but all unanimously agree to being one of the 'better' indie titles of the 1980s. A quick search on the 'net doesn't really delve much about this series, so this is DC in the 80s' chance to give this series it's due. Not just as a really well-illustrated and well-written series, but also as the forerunner to Grell's 1987 Longbow Hunters limited series and then his 1988 Green Arrow ongoing series (both published by DC comics in the late 1980s).

DCinthe80s: "To start: a little bit of history on you. You enlisted in the Air Force in 1967 and were discharged in 1971. You were in Saigon in 1971 - for about a year, correct?"

Mike Grell: "Yes."

DC80s: "So you weren't in the Vietnam War per se, you were working in the Air Force and Military Intelligence?" [the US extraction from Saigon (aka: end of Vietnam) was in 1975]

Grell: "Yes, I was. But the war was going on all around me, so I wasn't a combat soldier by any means, but I was in the war. I was involved. In fact, I was almost as involved as you can get without being in the jungle."

DC80s: "You grew up in Wisconsin, so you know a lot about hunting. Actually, I read that was one of your passions - wilderness, hunting..."

Grell: "Yes, yes it is."

DC80s: "You also know a lot about weaponry - I remember, while reading Jon Sable Freelance, you going into a lot of detail about the actual weapons used in the stories. I remember reading fan mail for the book praising your attention to detail on illustrating/describing a particular combat knife or gauge/caliber of a specific weapon. You have a really advanced knowledge of this stuff."

Grell: "Well I learned to shoot when I was 4 years old. I lived in Northern Wisconsin where the area was so depressed that if your father didn't hunt, your family didn't eat meat. Hunting came naturally to me just as a way of life. It taught me respect for the game animals, it taught me a love of the wild, and I've been at it since I was just a kid."

DC80s: "I sense a lot of that is reflected in your work: Jon Sable has a history of being a big game hunter in Africa, there's the whole hunter/prey motif in the series, and in Green Arrow - in your revamped origin - Green Arrow learns how to use a bow for survival while being stranded on a deserted island. Originally, as per his pre-Crisis origin, Green Arrow was a young boy when he was taught how to shoot."

Grell: "Yeah, it's a question of staying alive. I had a line I wrote in a story where someone asks him "what's the toughest shot he ever made?" and he replied "it was a lizard at ten feet" and they asked "was it poisonous?" and he replied "No. Tasty". Because it was the shot that he had to make in order to feed himself."

DC80s: "On the topic of Oliver Queen... by the way, do you still like the name 'Green Arrow'? I remember hearing you weren't a fan of the name 'Green Arrow'."

Grell: "The name is stupid, but the character - the concept of Green Arrow - well, Green Arrow has always been one of my favorite comic book heroes. Right from the time I was a little kid. I learned how to shoot a bow when I was six or seven years old and we used to play 'Robin Hood' all of the time. The idea of a character who doesn't have super powers, but he has superior skill that anybody can learn, just really appealed to me."

DC80s:"That's like the 'everyman' idea. Jon Sable is the 'everyman' because anybody with enough training could BE Jon Sable. Warlord/Travis Morgan was an 'everyman', he didn't have any special powers, he was an Air Force pilot who crashed in Skartaris..."

Grell: "Right. He was just an ordinary guy with a big sword and a .44 Magnum... but he had the only .44 Magnum is Skartaris, so it gave him a slight edge - y'know?"

DC80s: "Starslayer was another character you created. He was a Celtic warrior who gets that cybernetic eye implant as soon as he gets picked up by that ship - but for the most part, it is feasible that a normal human being could be skilled and honed enough that he could be on par with Starslayer. I'm finding that this another major theme in your 80s work - the main character as the 'everyman'. Even Blackhawk, the feature you wrote for 1988's Action Comic Weekly, is just a 'normal' pilot..."

Grell: "It's the circumstances that cause ordinary, normal people to rise above their everyday lives that really makes them heroic - people just going about their lives and something happens to change them. And it's that change that's important - it's what makes them who they are. It what makes them interesting." 

DC80s: "Something else I've noticed in your books is the concept of 'aging'. For example, Ollie is going through a mid-life crisis in Longbow Hunters, he's saying "well, I'm 40-something, do you want to have kids?" and Dinah says "Well, no. I don't want to bring kids into this world.""

Grell: "He wants to have kids because he's feeling that biological clock ticking, and she doesn't want anything to do with it because of what THEY do. She tells him that she'd love to make babies with him, but she doesn't want to make orphans. She's not ready to hang up her costume and give up the action. She still enjoys what she is and what she does."

"The reason why I made it a point to age my characters was that early on [in the 70s] I had a discussion with Julius Schwartz over a line in a Green Arrow story in which Ollie says "something something whatever I'm not even 30 yet" and I said "that's impossible" and he said "no no no, none of our characters are over thirty because our readers can't relate to anybody over thirty. They think that over thirty is 'over the hill' " and I said "that's totally ridiculous. How long would you say Green Arrow and Speedy have been together? Could you believe that the state had awarded Green Arrow custody of Speedy? What about Batman and Robin? Are you going to tell me that the state was going to award custody of a 15 year old boy to 29 year-old male bachelor? Really?" and so when I had the opportunity to create the Warlord and then Jon Sable, I made it a point to make those characters not just over 30, but over 40."

"I took a certain amount of pride in making them just a little older than I was at the time because I was against the pervasive ageism that is so prevalent in the comic industry. And it still is. There are so many unemployed artists who just happen to pass that 45 year old mark that you just can't believe it. It happens moreso in the comics industry...  probably moreso than any other industry. Artists who are still vital and viable - guys who can draw rings around a lot of the younger crop - are out of work because they're in their forties. Or, God forbid, in their fifties. Or, in my case, in their sixties."

DC80s: "Did you ever go to Africa?"

Grell: "Yes. I've been there twice on safari."

DC80s: "Was that before or after you wrote Jon Sable?"

Grell: "More or less during. I went first in 1984 and back again in 1989."

DC80s: "And you jousted at some point?"

Grell: "Yes. I rode with a group called the Seattle Knights for almost 10 years. I've jousted, did horse-back archery, sword fighting, and all that other stuff. I used to brag that I've never fell off a horse in my life. Then when I turned 45, I bought a horse. That came to an end in a hurry - three years later I was falling off professionally doing it 3 or 4 times a day. I've never been hurt falling off a horse on purpose. I've gotten busted-up on accident a couple of times.

DC80s: "When you were shopping around your Savage Empire comic strip in the early 1970s, you had another hard-boiled detective strip called Iron Mike... is that who Jon Sable is partly based on? You've listed Mickey Spillane and Edward Burroughs as some of your early influences..."

Grell: "The Mickey Spillane influence really showed in Iron Mike. There were a couple of stories I did in Jon Sable that I lifted straight out of Iron Mike - plots I had written out and wanted to follow through with."

DC80s: "I remember reading somewhere that Jon Sable was your favorite character. He was your 'pet project' and a lot of the allure came from the fact that you were able to tell the stories you wanted to tell. I've got say, I've re-read most of the entire Jon Sable Freelance TPB reprint set (available from IDW) for the first time a few months and still really enjoy it. It really holds up 30+ years later. I don't know if it's my age or etc, but lately I've been taking an interest in Cold War espionage drama, and this book was right up my alley. The majority of the stories are framed like whodunit mysteries..."

Grell: "That's what I liked most about the Jon Sable book - I could do any kind of story I wanted. It was securely anchored to the real world and I could often draw my stories from news headlines."

DC80s: "There's a few things here that you actually predict in advance. Sable dealt with a lot of contemporary stuff (at the time of publication), when you're reading it you can easily place when it happened ("okay, this story is about the 80-something Olympics. Okay, here's Jon Sable meeting with Reagan. Here's some Russians trying to escape the soviet by getting smuggled into the U.S.") and then there's the whole Iran/Contra thing..."

Grell: "Longbow Hunters! I got a call from a radio station in NYC asking me if I'd go on air and speak live about the story connection. The reporter asked me how I was able to beat the Iran/Contra story, in print, by 6 months. I told them that, quite frankly, all I did was read the papers, looked at what was going on in the world and plugged in the various players and asked myself "what would be stupidest thing the CIA could do if they were absolutely certain they would never get caught?" and that's what I wrote about."

Reagan makes a guest appearance in Jon Sable Freelance #1

DC80s: "You're one of the pioneers of championing for creator-owned work. You were the first to join up with Pacific Comics in the 80s (Jack Kirby was the second). For First Comics, you were the second to sign up (Joe Staton was the first). Jon Sable was one of the first 3 books published by First Comics. There was WARP, E-Man, Jon Sable Freelance and then Starslayer came in not too long after that [1983]. What was that like? You were taking a big gamble and venturing into new territory (i.e. creator-owned). I know that First Comics was paying a really good page rate, but there was a risk - you were venturing and taking a gamble. You were also making a statement about 'creator-owned'. It wasn't fair that you were creating popular characters for a bigger comic book company and couldn't retain control of them." 

Grell: "Exactly. I was always a big fan of newspaper comic strips. One of the reasons I wanted to get into newspaper strips so badly is because creators owned their own material. I didn't see any reason why that SHOULDN'T be the case in comic books as well. When the opportunity to create and own my own feature arose with Pacific Comics, I jumped on it. They unfortunately did NOT live up to their pledge and promise of even regular payments, there were so many bounced cheques back in the day that I had to look elsewhere. But here came First Comics and they were making good on their promises that Pacific was unable to fulfill. And it just made a huge difference. They were offering royalties. If it hadn't been for companies like First Comics, I don't think Marvel or DC would be paying royalties today. There's no possible way."

DC80s: "First Comics needed you just as badly as you needed them, as First needed some big-name comic talent to jump on board with them to attract new readers. It was a win-win situation, really. The appeal of First Comics was that you were reading some big-name talent hence drawing you into their line of comic books."

"When you started with Jon Sable Freelance, it wasn't a code-approved book obviously, so it gave you more leeway. Frank Miller's Daredevil run for Marvel - I wouldn't say he coined 'grim and gritty' - but he had the street-level stories... and then there was kind of a lull because he left Daredevil in the early 80s, and that's when Jon Sable appeared on the newsstands. But since you weren't operating under the Comics Code Authority, you were able to be more graphic than Miller was able to...

Grell:"You know.. I'm not sure that that's accurate. I think that Sable was ahead of Miller's Daredevil." 

[Miller's Daredevil run ran from 1979 - 1983, and then again in 1985 - 1986. I was referring to Miller's first run when he introduced Elektra. So, Mike's half-right here. Still - not bad for a guy who didn't have wikipedia in front of him.]

DC80s: "What's interesting about the character of Jon Sable is that he's a very cool, laid-back guy, but then, next thing you know he's straight up murdering people on panel. (Granted, they are typically villains, assassins, muggers or enemy soldiers). But the point is, it's pretty graphic and it's on-panel. The Jon Sable has a major underlying theme of 'urban crime' - how dangerous the streets are. There's lots of implied sex in that book."

Grell: "I explored a lot of those themes in Jon Sable, but also in Green Arrow Longbow Hunters. I was taken to task in print by the New York Times and Times magazine - in the same week they ran articles mentioning Green Arrow. Unfortunately they never mentioned my name. They called Green Arrow, and I remember the quote word-for-word, 'borderline pornography pandering to the prurient interests of today's youth'. oh, it was great. it was great. I just regret that they didn't mention my name."

"At the same time, they referred to Mindy Newell (she was writing Catwoman at the time) and Mindy's name they used. She got a phone call from her father, who was a heavy-hitter stock broker with big offices on Wall Street, saying "Mindy, I'd like you to come down to the office for lunch today" and she was thinking "Oh my God, what am I gonna face now?". So she walks in, as she steps off the elevator in the main lobby of her father's firm she sees the page from the New York Times blown-up wall-sized with her name circled about 25 times in yellow highlighter. She got a standing ovation from the office staff, and a big bouquet of roses from her father. He said "Honey, I've been on Wall Street for 35 years and I've never gotten my name in the Times."

DC80s: "You also did a Jon Sable story in Green Arrow where someone named Jake Moses show up [Green Arrow v2 #15 - 16, 1989], and..."

Grell: "Yes!" [Grell's face lights up]

DC80s: "...and Green Arrow ends up having a conversation with him. Was there a reason for that? Were you trying to demonstrate something? Like, 'for all you critics comparing my Jon Sable character to Green Arrow, here's the difference...'. Jacob Moses was driven over the edge. He was nothing like the smooth, handsome man-of-the-world Jon Sable - he was a haggard, Irish mercenary. Was there a story there? Or was this just a fun way to slip Jon Sable into a DC book?"

Grell: "Yeah, there was. On the one hand it was a continuation of a Sable-type of character, and on the other hand it was my way of putting that character to rest. It would've more or less been a logical ending for a guy who lived his life like Sable did. But in reality, it was a little bit of a back-hand slap at First Comics because at the time that I left the book - well, the reason that I did so was because I knew that without me on the title it would eventually fade and die. First Comics had a 10 year publishing license for 3 years after they last published the book. My leaving the book was a way to hasten that time period instead of having to wait until that 10 year period was over, I knew that after I left the book they'd only be able to keep it going for a short period of time. And then I would get the rights back a few years after they ceased publication."

DC: "Was there 'bad blood' between you and First Comics?"

Grell: "There was at the time. It was a sheer question of economics: I wasn't being paid what I was owed when I was supposed to get my payments. The timing was perfect. Mike Gold had transitioned to DC comics and he phoned me up one day and said "I'm editing over here at DC, is there any character here that you like well enough to 'bury the hatchet' and come back to work?". I said "Batman". I had just talked to Frank Miller, maybe a week before, and he told me about the plot of his Dark Knight Returns book, and I told Mike "Once Frank's done with Batman, you can put a period at the end of the Batman sentence for the next 20 years." Of course, I'm off by 7 or 8 years now, and counting. Gold was the one who said "Green Arrow". Green Arrow has always been one of my favorite characters. "Now think about this," he said "...Green Arrow as an URBAN HUNTER". That's was it. That was the whole inspiration for the Longbow Hunters, and the angle on the character for the ongoing series that followed."

DC80s: "Was that a difficult idea to sell to DC? I remember Green Arrow as being a somewhat 'jovial' character - that guy with the trick arrows (boxing glove on the tip of the arrow) - and you were going to reinvent him as a vigilante with pointed arrows that pierce and potentially kill. How did DC handle that proposal on the character?"

Grell: "It turned out to be a really easy sell." 

DC80s: "I'm imagining it had to do with your success with Jon Sable Freelance. They saw how popular and well-written that was. Hence my point that Jon Sable Freelance was the precursor to your Longbow Hunters and, shortly thereafter, your 1988 Green Arrow ongoing series. A lot of elements from Jon Sable Freelance are apparent in Green Arrow. In both of them, your main characters get hurt. Jon Sable, he's got permanent scars across his chest - there's some continuity there because the scars are the result of one of his first adventures. In Green Arrow, Ollie's always coming back as bloody as hell and Dinah has to bandage him up. It's grounded in realism. He's not going out beating up muggers all night and coming back home unscathed. These guys are getting hurt. Same thing with Dinah - she gets into a major fight and for several issues later she's still got the exact same bruises. That's realistic. That's the allure - it goes back to that 'everyman' thing. You feel that you could realistically be this person. You can relate to it."

Grell: "Yeah, I think that's part of the job of a writer is to be close enough to reality - even in a fantasy - that your character isn't perceived as just a violent S.O.B. who has no repercussions in his life. Yes, Oliver Queen shot a lot of people with bows and arrows, but he also wound up in court. And it took a toll on him. Everything that he did took a toll. He was essentially a victim of PTSD."

DC80s: "...also another common theme in your work: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jon Sable is dealing with the death of his family."

Grell: "Violence doesn't only affect the person that it happens to. sometimes it affects the person who perpetrates it"

DC80s: "That appears to be an important theme in your work which keeps it based in realism. Is Jon Sable based on Ian Flemming? His alter ego is B.B. Flemm... "

Grell: "No. The inspiration for Sable was a character who would be the EXACT OPPOSITE of Batman. He doesn't work for the greater good, he works for money - you got to pay him, he's a mercenary. He doesn't have a secret identity. The mask is only symbolic apart from the fact that it scares the hell out of the bad guys. He's not trying to disguise who he is - everybody know he's mister blood and guts. His deep dark secret is that he's a closet "nice guy" who writes children's books about a group of leprechauns living in a fairy mound in central park. The only time he wears any kind of disguise is when he has to go out into public and appear as the children's author B.B. Flemm. Which, when it's written out, looks fine. But when you say it, it's that stuff you hock out of your throat when you have a bad cold."

DC80s: "Physically, was the appearance of Jon Sable based on someone you knew? An actor, perhaps? Same question for Maggie the Cat... [a Jon Sable character that quickly became a fan favorite and received her own spin-off book]"

Maggie the Cat

Grell:"Sable was originally based on James Brolin - Josh Brolin's dad. Maggie the Cat was based in part on Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly did a movie with Cary Grant called To Catch A Thief [1955] and she's also partly based (facially) on a model/actress named Lauren Hutton."

image of James Brolin. phot source:
James Brolin

Grace Kelly. MGM Photo. Source:
Grace Kelly

image of Lauren Hutton. photo source:
Lauren Hutton

DC80s: "All the women in Jon Sable Freelance are beautiful..."

Grell: "Beautiful are more interesting than ugly ones. I'm just sayin' "

DC80s: "...especially when you are writing cold war mystery/espionage thrillers..."
Grell: "More interesting to me, anyways"

DC80s: "It's also interesting that Jon Sable, a guy in his 40s, his primary love interest is Myke - the really tall twenty-something aspiring illustrator..."

Grell: "Yeah, well I was married to a twenty-something girl at the time"

DC80s: "art imitates life"

Grell: "...and just like in Jon Sable, she was taller than me."


Again, I'm going to make a strong recommendation that you pick up and read First Comics' Jon Sable Freelance ongoing series from 1983 (written and illustrated by Mike Grell). I didn't read the entire series, just the first six trade paperbacks published, so I really can't comment on anything after that - but I can confidently tell you that the first 33 issues are better than 80% of what's currently out there on the comic book market. The series is beautifully illustrated by Grell and holds up really well as far as plotting and pacing go - some of it's pretty intense and will even surprise you. If you're the 'adventurous' type, you can go hunting through back-issue bins (issues can vary wildly in price, but for the most part you should be able to get them pretty cheap) or you can just bite the bullet (like I did) and pick up the trades from IDW.

Just lovin' those two-page Grell-illustrated splash pages

I can hardly express how grateful I am that Mike Grell gave me his time and sat down and talked with me. You can check out more of Mike Grell on his website:

Go to part two of this interview.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A brief summary of The Omega Men ongoing series (1983)

The Omega Men house ad (circa 1983). Property of DC comics.

When Marv Wolfman first discovered that he would be writing Action Comics in 1980, he had big plans for the Man of Steel. According to Wolfman, the writers at DC had a “tendency to create aliens faster than rabbits created heirs” and, for continuity reasons, this was difficult for a writer to keep track of. Thus, Wolfman’s first order of business was to create consistent alien races to be integrated into the DC Universe - hence he came up with the Citadel and the Psions*. Before Wolfman started writing Action Comics, he discovered that his proposal for a new Teen Titans series had been approved and decided to incorporate his new alien races into the New Teen Titans (ex: Starfire was on the run from the Citadel AND the Psions). Around the same this time, Wolfman was assigned to write the Green Lantern series, so he also took this opportunity to incorporate the Citadel in a story about Green Lantern battling space aliens in the distant future. Several months passed and Wolfman was looking to write a fill-in issue for Green Lantern and decided on a whim to write a story about a bunch of aliens on the run from the Citadel. Created by Wolfman and Joe Staton, they originally named the group “The Outcasts” but decided on a different name since Wolfman saw spin-off potential with this new team. The three Green Lantern issues that the Omega Men appeared in received a very positive reaction from fans and Wolfman realized they were on to something. Wolfman had the Omega Men appear in a few other stories he had written (ex: New Teen Titans, Action Comics) to gauge fan reaction before DC boldly unveiled the 1983 prestige format The Omega Men ongoing series to comic book shops across the country.

I refer to the 1983 The Omega Men series as ‘bold’ for two reasons:
  • they were part of DC’s pilot project to publish deluxe books - these consisted of an offset printing process and superior quality Baxter paper (the books sold for more than newsstand prices) 
  •  the series had no Comics Code Authority seal whatsoever - they could print all of the gore, foul language and sexually explicit material they wished

(Both of these modifications were made in an effort to appeal to serious comic readers who wanted higher-quality products with more mature content and mainly bought their comics from comic book specialty shops.)

The 1983 Omega Men series was a huge departure from the precedent Wolfman had already established. For starters, Wolfman was too busy with other projects so the writing tasks for this series were assigned to Roger Slifer (Wolfman remained as editor, however). Whereas Wolfman’s Omega Men was an adventure book about a team who banded together to battle foes, Slifer’s Omega Men was about a team of characters who joined to battle a common foe but were overcome with internal disputes and conflicting personal agendas. The series started with a bang and within the first six issues the Citadel War had been resolved with the Omegans as the victors. The first six issues were pencilled by Keith Giffen and were absolutely fantastic to look at. Giffen dropped the book after the sixth issue citing 'Science Fiction Super Team Overdose Syndrome’ as the cause - Giffen had to let one of his sci-fi books go, so he dropped The Omega Men and stayed with Legion of Super-Heroes (just for context, Giffen’s infamous Legion of Super-Heroes Poster came out around this time). Tod Smith took over as penciller after Giffen left.

1983 Legion of Super-Heroes poster by Keith Giffen. Property of DC Comics.
The poster that almost caused Giffen to quit comics!

As previously mentioned, The Omega Men series did not have the Comics Code Authority seal, and the first six issues contained a lot more graphic violence, adult language and implied nudity than some fans thought was called for. Slifer defended the content by saying that war was not pretty and by toning it down, the book would water-down the horrors of war and lose the impact it was trying to make. Slifer recognized that the longer the series focused on the Citadel war, the sooner it would stagnate - so he opted to end it quickly. Instead, Slifer had the series focus on the aftermath of the war - so we had a lot of stories involving political intrigue, the rebuilding of war-torn cultures/planets, power struggles, the moral ambiguity of characters within the series and how relationships played out amongst the Omega Men. Not too many readers realized that Slifer was weaving a lot of political allegory into the plot lines reflective of present-day world political situations in 1983 (ex: Vietnam/South American conflicts). Additionally, Slifer tried to keep The Omega Men self-contained with not much involvement from other mainstream DC characters (probably because he had realized they had created their own comic universe). Roger Slifer left the book at issue #13 because of irreconcilable differences with DC (it was due to creator’s rights, apparently) and Todd Klein (former letterer for the series) filled in as writer for a few issues until Doug Moench became the regular writer.

When Doug Moench and Tod Smith became the regular Omega Men creative team (The Omega Men #17) the series took a sharp turn: the mood was lightened and the series was less about fighting a bloody galactic war and more of an action/adventure comic. Some fans criticized Tod Smith’s illustrations for being too cartoony. Other writers and illustrators came and went (ex: Sharman DiVono, Kevin O'Neil, Marv Wolfman) before the final creative team of Todd Klein and Shawn McManus was settled upon (The Omega Men #26). Marv Wolfman gave up editorship of the series to Alan Gold after issue #24 - mainly because he was too busy with other projects - but still provided Gold with editorial advice to keep the series moving along. Back-up tales featuring the citizens of the Vega star system began to appear after issue #24 - this was a popular feature with fans and included stories written by Alan Moore (among other great talent). McManus’ painted covers for the series also received a lot of praise and adoration from fans. Omega Men #33 experienced a format change as more pages were added and advertisements were removed - Klein and McManus had to stop accepting other assignments so that they could focus on the creative thrust in the series. Sadly, the series was cancelled after issue #38.

Shawn McManus painted covers:
cover of The Omega Men #34 (1986). Property of DC comics. cover of The Omega Men #36 (1986). Property of DC comics.

With all of the brilliant things going for this series, why was it cancelled? Well...

A lot of fans were put off with Keith Giffen leaving the series after issue #6. Roger Slifer leaving after issue #13 didn’t help things either. I’m going to guess that the momentum that Giffen and Slifer created kept the series going strong, because in issue #18 the letter column reveals that The Omega Men was one of DC’s best-selling books at the moment. Strangely, while The Omega Men had excellent sales, they were somehow receiving hardly any fan mail. It was speculated that they started to lose readership around issue #22 - one theory was that the sea of other deluxe comic books being sold at specialty comic books shops were just too much competition for the title to bear. A new creative team (Klein and McManus) was brought in at issue #26, and in an effort to bolster sales introduced new characters (a former Green Lantern Corps member and Starfire’s younger brother) and a new war-themed storyline. Sales took a major dip around issue #28. Despite the boost in artistic quality that McManus brought to the table, he was unbelievably slow at getting issues illustrated and editor Alan Gold often had to find fill-ins to buy some time allowing McManus to catch up with whatever story he was working on. By the end of the series, The Omega Men had turned into an anthology book in an effort to tie up loose ends - the series was a victim of creative floundering (ex: characters were left under-developed, sub-plots were suddenly dropped for inexplicable reasons, some writers felt that The Omega Men should be a 'team book' and other writers did not, etc). In retrospect, Alan Gold admit that ending the Citadel War so early in the series may not have been the best story-telling strategy. The Omega Men mainly relied on word-of-mouth as far as advertising was concerned and you’d be hard-pressed to find an ad for the title in any DC publication at the time. Cancellation at issue #38 meant they couldn’t conclude a few storylines that had been developing. Most of the core team of the Omega Men died in the 1988 Invasion! DC comics company-wide cross-over event.

What was great about this series was that it was constantly evolving. It went from being a book about a band of rebels fighting a galactic war, to a book exploring the aftermath of a galactic war and the chaos that ensued. It then jumped to an action/adventure series - exploring the characters and their personalities further. It later turned into a giant space opera with weird sci-fi undertones. All the while the series explored themes such as diplomacy vs blind action, aggression vs trusting love, and blind obedience in religion (to name a few). Throughout the series the origins of just about every race that Wolfman dreamed up (Psions, Tamarans, Okaara) are gradually revealed and their cultures are thoroughly explored. This series lasted 38 issues and 2 annuals (which is not bad for a self-contained non-mainstream DC book) and covered a lot of ground in regards to Wolfman’s imagined Vega galaxy. I mentioned that Slifer wanted to keep this series self-contained but that ultimately did not happen - the Omega Men had a Crisis on Infinite Earths cross-over (The Omega Men #31), a Blue Devil appearance (Blue Devil #18) and a Teen Titans appearance (New Teen Titans v2 #16). Despite the Omega Men starting in the mainstream DC Universe (way back in Green Lantern v2 #141) they ultimately evolved into a sci-fi book with their own galaxy of characters.

cover of the Omega Men #3 (1983). Property of DC comics.
First appearance of Lobo (1983)

If anyone remembers the 1983 Omega Men series for anything, it would be for the infamous first appearance of a bounty hunter named Lobo (debuts in The Omega Men #3). When Lobo (created by Giffen and Slifer) first debuted he was a skinny clown-looking guy who rode a flying chair. So, basically, Lobo looked nothing like the jacked-up space-biker anti-hero we all know and love, and that’s because he only got his makeover by artist Simon Bisley sometime in the early 90s. After The Omega Men were cancelled in 1986, Lobo became a recurring character in Giffen’s 1989 L.E.G.I.O.N. series and basically became the poster boy for comic book anti-heroes.

*An early prototype of the Psions first appeared in a back-up tale of 1973’s The Witching Hour #13 (written by Marv Wolfman)

panel from The Witching Hour #13 (1973). Property of DC comics.
Early Psions (sounds like 'science')

Alan Moore was editor Alan Gold’s first pick to write the Omega Men ongoing series: “Alan Gold phoned me up and asked me if I wanted to write The Omega Men, but I couldn’t because I’ve got a lot of other stuff and The Omega Men is not something I could see myself do easily without making some really really major changes … But what I did was, I offered to write a synopsis of a possible way that the Omega Men could be sorted out and made into a more viable sort of concept. I wrote about 27-30 pages.” (Amazing Heroes # 58, October 1984)

Further Reading:
What was Marv's opinion on this series? Glad you asked...

[This article first published on DC in the 80s tumblr in October 2013]

Dan Hammond's Blue Devil Fan Art

A few weeks ago when we approached Dan Hammond at his booth at the Ottawa Comiccon and told him we publish a webzine about DC comics from the 1980s, he seemed a little skeptical at first but then got really excited at the idea of it all.

As a major DC comics fan of that era, he couldn't decide on which character to draw/submit to our site, but he finally settled on the "horny devil himself". We were really excited to find this in our inbox last night, as we were worried Dan had forgotten all about us - but he didn't. He was just busy with commissions.

So why did Dan pick Blue Devil? "I picked the Blue Devil because he was a cool character and [his ongoing series] didn't get the following from the readers that the character deserved. He had a lot of potential as a hero. He was a Hollywood stuntman who became one with the suit due to an accident. As a stuntman he already would have been strong, fearless and acrobatic so he would have had "superhero" qualities even before he became the Blue Devil. I don't know if I had a favorite issue but I remember Kid Devil's debut being a good one."

It should probably be mentioned that Dan Hammond has been quite active in the Canadian comics scene these last few years. Dan and Dustin Crocker created a comic called H.E.L.L. (by Jailbird Comics) about an underground prison designed to contain demons. It's run by a modern day sect of the Templar Knights and instead of swords and chain mail, they wear mechanized battle suits. H.E.L.L. stands for HOSTILE ENTITY LOCATION and LOCKDOWN.

Dan has done some work for Canadian comic book publisher Chapter House Comics. He did a variant Captain Canuck cover last year in 2015. He's currently working on a new project for Chapter House's newest character, Northguard. (Coming July 2016)

Dan also has a few kids books on the go and is debuting a comic in June 2016 in Ann Arbour for little girls called Petalianne. The Canadian debut of that will be at Toronto's Fan Expo.

You can reach Dan Hammond at www.midnightpencils.comDan had a lot of fantastic DC comics art at his booth and I really hope to showcase more of his work in the near future.

Richard Vasseur of Jazma Online interviewed Dan Hammond about breaking into comics and his work on H.E.L.L. You can read the interview here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

USENET fandom - Marv Wolfman speaks out (1984)

Before we had the World Wide Web, we had UseNet. Developed in 1980, UseNet allowed a collection of computer users to interconnect via dial-up modems and post messages onto newsgroups (which resemble BBSes). Anywhere and anytime comic fans are able to congregate, you know they will be exchanging opinions and ideas about comic books - particularly DC comic books. In today's segment, Chris Sheehan examines what online comic fans were saying about Crisis on Infinite Earths. Please note: usernames have been removed for privacy reasons.

Marv Wolfman was apparently, at the very least, a passive UseNet follower/reader/commenter. Today we’re going to take a look at some of Mr. Wolfman's own thoughts on some of the titles he was involved with circa Spring 1984. This comes to us via netterhack BB.

In a post called "DC Comments from Marv Wolfman" dated April 2, 1984, BB shares the following:

Vigilante: The thought of this book becoming grim is a bit odd, as I always considered this one as such. It was a street level book, that often draws (or invites) comparison to Marvel’s Punisher... if Frank used NERF guns. I do suppose an argument can be made that the series grew darker as it went on, leading to an unforgettable final issue written by Paul Kupperberg.

The issues Marv mentions that Alan Moore wrote are #17-18. Now, this is a grim little tale that tackles the subjects of pedophilia and prostitution. The story’s ending is particularly disturbing. Vigilante teams with a woman named Fever, who runs over the molester with a car, and spins out the wheels of the car on his body for bonus splatteriness and gore!

Love the mention of Crisis: Earth (History of the DC Universe). I always get chills looking at the earliest advertisements for the series that would become Crisis on Infinite Earths... It always makes me feel like we’re seeing something we shouldn't. Just imagine the brainstorming sessions going down during this time! He/They were literally deciding the fates of some of our favorites as this missive was posted.

Titans: Issue #44 (Tales of the Teen Titans) was huge for many reasons. Not only, as is mentioned above does it uncover Deathstroke the Terminator’s origin... it is also the first appearance of Dick Grayson as Nightwing! Slade Wilson’s son Joey (Jericho) also debuts here... AND it is part of the legendary Judas Contract story line. For a Titans fan, it doesn’t get a whole lot bigger than that!

We learn that Deathstroke was trained by Captain Adeline Kane (who would eventually become his wife) in the art of guerrilla warfare. He would volunteer to undergo a bit of experimental medical testing, meant to overstimulate the adrenal gland (an attempt to evade truth serums). The experiment wound up unlocking Slade’s mental potential, affording him the ability to utilize 90% of his brain... as well as granting him superhuman physical attributes.

We also come to learn that Deathstroke lost his eye at the hands (or bullet) of Adeline when their son Joey was held captive and had his throat slashed. She blamed the event on her husband, and attempted to shoot him... he survived, thanks in great part to his superhuman speed and reflexes... but still lost his eye.

It’s amazing to consider the chase for sell-outs back during this time. Today we hear about print runs selling out, however, due to the speculator-variant cover onslaught, we can tell that these didn’t quite "sell through"... they were over ordered so we can get our hand on that super-rare 1:1000 Wolverine as a taco cover... and will, for the next several years clog dollar bins from coast to coast. Back in the 80’s though? It feels like a sellout actually means something. We remember these issues. [Walt] Simonson’s Thor, black-suit Spidey, Judas Contract. All classics.

Omega Men: This was one I never really followed... though, for whatever reason, still collected. The first Doug Moench storyline is perhaps most famous for being the first appearance of the Main Man himself, Lobo. The Omega Men themselves first appeared in a Marv Wolfman-penned Green Lantern story, in which they watch over a sector that the Lanterns are not allowed entrance into.

Star Trek: This is literally the first time I’m hearing that Marv had any involvement with this series, and have come to find that he served as editor for some of the DC Comics run with the property (after writing and editing it for Marvel). Not much to add, I never was into Star Trek... and wouldn’t know a Vulcan from a Tribble if they both knocked at my door.

I left the last bit in just because I was tickled that even back in 1984 people were referring to posted mail as "snail mail". I would have never imagined that the term would have been coined so early a point in digital communication. I mean, I feel like we’re still somewhat in the infancy of what the Internet can truly do... back in 1984? We’re talking the fetal Internet! By the way, if you wanna contact Marv Wolfman... disregard the 666 address above, they don’t live there no more.

That’s gonna do it for this installment. BB’s post like many of the time, went unanswered (and unless the message somehow got "lost", he never followed up those 1-2 days later like he said). That’s the way things went back when you had to dial in... if you could dial in. Still, gotta wonder how many folks wrote in to Marv at the DC offices because of this missive though! As always, if you have any additions or corrections, please feel free to contact me in care of this website. Thank you for reading.


Can't wait for the next installment in this series of articles? For more of Chris Sheehan, check out his highly recommended Chris is on Infinite Earths blog.