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Friday, July 29, 2016

Know Your Suicide Squad: Killer Croc

The new Suicide Squad film is fast approaching and, well, I'm not even up-to-speed on the histories of all of the characters on the roster. This article is just as much for myself as it is for you, so hopefully you'll enjoy...

Know your Suicide Squad: Killer Croc

[Killer Croc has been heavily active in DCU Continuity for the past two decades, but for the sake of keeping 'on theme' with this webzine, we're only going to focus on his 80s appearances all the way up to the very early 90s. - editor]

Created by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan, Killer Croc first appears in Detective Comics #523 (1983). He's a slim gangster in a trench coat and fedora who goes by the name of 'Croc' and spends most of his time skulking in the background. I'm going to set the scene here: it's the early 80s and Gotham City gangsters Rupert Thorne and Tony Defalco have been dethroned, so there's a bit of a power-vacuum within the Gotham Underworld. Dick Grayson is still Robin, but he's an active member of the Teen Titans, and his relationship with Bruce Wayne is starting to show some strain. Bruce seems to be getting a bit more tense and is currently juggling two women in his life: Selina Kyle and Vicki Vale. On the editorial side, Len Wein had recently started editing both Batman and Detective Comics and intended on merging the continuities of all Batman titles (i.e. Batman, Detective Comics, Brave and the Bold, and World's Finest) to keep everything feeling like it's occurring in the same universe.

In his third appearance (Detective Comics #524), Croc's fedora gets knocked off in an altercation and we get the first full-view of his scaly face:

Despite the scales, he is still rather 'human-looking'

Croc was first presented as a 'smooth operator' making moves to take control of Gotham City's underworld, and his first major murder within Gotham City was performed using a long-range sniper rifle. Croc's debut appearance had him involved in a six-issue story arc running between Batman #357 - 359 (1983) and Detective Comics #524 - 526 (1983). [It wasn't unusual for Batman stories to continue from one title to the next.] It's kind of interesting to note the progression of Croc going from a tactical criminal mastermind to a berzerker hand-to-hand combatant within these six issues. At his worst, he's an experienced alligator wrestler who is really trying hard to break Batman's back - he's not trying to eat people, yet. At least one reader picked up on this rapid evolution of the character and wrote in to comment on it. Wein replied with "We got the impression that Croc's dual nature was somehow tied in to his reptilian appearance. Half of the time he was clever, manipulative, a real snake. But still being half human, he was given to all-too-human fits of rage. Made sense to us!" [It should probably also be noted that Killer Croc only goes berserk after Batman infiltrates his 'home'. More on this later. -J]

Killer Croc's pre-Crisis origin is summarized in Batman #359 (1983): he was born with a hideous skin disease in a lower-income area of town and had a dead-beat aunt as his only care-taker. Croc spent most of his youth in and out of prison, and kills another inmate when he's a young adult. After spending an additional 18 years behind bars he gets paroled and joins the carnival as an alligator wrestler. Some time after joining the carnival, he decides to leaves and start getting his revenge on those who did him wrong in the past - ultimately deciding to take over the Gotham Underworld. In so many panels, Conway depicts Killer Croc as a "victim" of the system - perhaps even a villain to sympathize with. Any sympathy the reader may acquire for Croc pretty much goes out the window after the events of the next few issues.

Detective Comics #526 (1983) was Gerry Conway's last issue in this Batman saga before he went over to start working on The Fury of the Firestorm. Doug Moench would replace Conway as regular writer for Batman and Detective Comics. Conway's run ended with Killer Croc meeting with the rest of the Batman Rogues, and the addition of a new Batman Family character.

The reason why Killer Croc's first recognized appearance (Batman #357, 1983) will cost you a little more on the back issue market is because Batman #357 is also the first appearance of the pre-Crisis Jason Todd. No, not that fiesty dark-haired scamp who stole our hearts (and the Batmobile's tires) during Max Allan Collins' Batman run, we're talking about this guy:

You see, in pre-Crisis history, Killer Croc was instrumental in Jason Todd becoming Batman's new Robin because Killer Croc kills Todd's parents. Prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, this was Killer Croc's greatest claim to fame. This was taken away from Croc after the Jason Todd origin was rebooted. Todd's father was still killed by a Bat-Villain, but this time it was Two-Face instead of Killer Croc (Batman #410, 1987). Why was Croc bumped for Harvey Dent? Batman: The New Adventures starts at Batman #408 (1987) immediately following Batman: Year One. Is it possible that DC editorial wanted to re-introduce Harvey Dent/Two-Face as quickly as possible in the "new Batman reboot" in order to establish him as an important fixture in Bat-lore? Writer Max Allan Collins reached out to us and told us that he was instructed to "make Jason Todd wholly independent from the previous version". The Two-Face arc, which Collins' mentioned that he would've resolved very differently, was his own idea. DC editorial pretty much gave Collins a carte-blanche to re-imagine Jason Todd's origin any way he saw fit, so there was no intentional effort on DC's behalf to omit Croc from Jason Todd's history.

If you get the sense that I'm focusing a little too intently on Killer Croc's first six-issue story arc from 1983, well... that's because I am. Croc didn't do very much for the rest of the 80s.

Killer Croc's next appearance was in 1986's Batman #400. This anniversary issue was a superb self-contained story that featured all the major Bat-Villains and boasted an all-star cast of artistic talent. A few sentences cannot adequately explain what a visual treat this issue is, so we'll need to save that for another day. Instead, we'll just mention that all of the Bat-Villains are freed from their various methods of incarceration and Killer Croc gets another shot at Batman. Killer Croc is still a vengeance-fueled monster, albeit a human-sized one. Truthfully, he looks like a professional body builder with a horrible skin condition. At some point, Croc has the audacity to break into Wayne Manor and attack Alfred. (If you're seeing a lot of parallels with 1993's Knightfall, please note that Doug Moench wrote both this issue and was also part of the Knightfall writing team.) For anyone keeping track, this issue occurs after Crisis on Infinite Earths, but before the 1986 Batman reboot. The pre-Crisis Jason Todd (who now suspiciously looks like a dead-wringer for the Dick Grayson Robin [ex: black hair, wears a traditional Robin costume]) appears in this issue and Batman goes to great efforts to keep him away from Croc. The reader is briefly reminded that Croc killed Jason's parents and, in a struggle, Batman ends up defeating Croc with a gas pellet from his utility belt. [While doing research for this article, I discovered that Detective Comic #566 and Batman #400 are inter-connected. How cool is that? -J]

Croc's first post-Batman reboot appearance would be brief [an entire 3 pages] in Swamp Thing v2 #66 (1987) written by Rick Veitch. By this point, he's more or less regressed to a reptile state and has trouble stringing together sentences with proper nouns and verbs. Still human-sized, but unbelievably ferocious, Batman ends up subduing him with nerve gas. It's alluded that Croc is now crippled due to Batman's actions. Croc and Batman's very brief and abrupt appearance (they literally come in crashing through a window) served as an 'action break' in an otherwise very dialogue-heavy story about Swamp Thing and Abby working out relationship issues.

Secret Origins #23 (1988), also written by Veitch, is a recap on the origin of Dr. Jason Woodrue - aka the Floronic Man - told from the point of view of a wheelchair-bound Killer Croc. The Floronic Man, who in the past few years has had strong ties to Swamp Thing thanks to Alan Moore, was slated for bigger things in 1988 thanks to the Millennium cross-over event and his inclusion in 1988's The New Guardians series - so clearly, a recap was in order to re-familiarize readers with the character. Throughout Killer Croc's narrative, we realize he's a lot more intelligent/cognitive than he appears and by then end of the story it is revealed that he has recovered from his nerve gas induced paralysis (it's hinted that's it's due to his 'reptilian' abilities). I'd like to think that this was Veitch's way of tying up any loose ends for both Croc and Woodrue before letting go of the characters for new creative teams to use.

Killer Croc's next appearance would be in 1991's Batman #471 written by Alan Grant and edited by Dennis O'Neil. Grant decided to portray Croc in a sympathetic light for this issue - we get a Croc who just wants to belong and feel like he has a home, so he takes up in the sewers of Gotham City with a group of homeless people. We get a quick recap of his back-story in this issue: this includes a lot of electroshock therapy, a serious hate for Batman, and a brief mention that he never knew his parents and was raised by a neglectful aunt - of course there's no mention of Croc killing Todd's parents, because that's been retconned. Grant very craftily kept most of Croc's pre-Crisis origin intact while giving us a bit of rationale explaining why Croc acted the way he did. This was one of Grant's signature story-telling devices - to provide a 'human element' to a story or character.  The issue ends with Croc seemingly 'sacrificing' himself to save his adopted family from an environmental disaster and Batman looking like a heartless chump who just won't leave Croc alone. Croc's search for 'a home' retroactively syncs with his debut where he goes into hysterics at Batman for breaking into his private residence [way back in the Croc's first 1983 story arc].

While Killer Croc no longer being associated with the origin of the new Robin may have diminished his importance as a Bat-Villain, it made him easier to sympathize with - especially since he'd been so sparsely used in the DCU throughout the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s. To a new era of readers brought in by 1989's Batmania, he was still a relatively new character that only Batman fans who had been following the series for the last decade may remember. That was all about to change in 1992.

Batman: The Animated Series, episode 23 (1992) "Vendetta"

Batman: The Animated Series, with it's neo-noir atmosphere and intelligent storytelling, really opened up the Batman universe to a new fan-base of television watchers in 1992. Despite being a long-time Batman fan with a functional knowledge of Batman's rogues gallery (mainly via Super Friends and The Adventures of Batman cartoons), this was my first exposure to Killer Croc. In the animated universe, Killer Croc goes by the name of 'Morgan' (not 'Waylon Jones') and seems to have some sort of history with Detective Harvey Bullock. His origin is also slightly altered as he's apparently had a career as a professional wrestler prior to becoming a criminal. I'm not going to dwell too much on his Batman: TAS appearances, but the show was a fantastic vehicle for introducing previously forgotten Bat-Villains and making them relevant again.

The last big Killer Croc appearance we'll cover is this installment will be his inclusion in the Knightfall event. Quite possibly thanks to his Batman: TAS appearance, Croc had more than a bit part in this 1993 event — first appearing in a few Knightfall 'prologue' issues (Batman #489 & #491) and then in an entire chapter (Detective Comics #660). Knightfall was THE Batman comic book event of the early 90s and spiked a renewed interest in Batman-related characters among comic book collectors everywhere [not just the readers/collectors, but the speculators, too].

Detective Comics #660 (1993). cover by Sam Keith

Readers hailed #660 as one of the best appearances of Killer Croc in nearly a decade, demonstrating just how dangerous of a Bat-Villain he had the potential to be. Coincidentally, Detective Comics #660 was Croc's most reptilian appearance in this list of appearances. It would seem that as time goes by his appearance progressively becomes more and more crocodile-like (this is evidenced by his new 52 appearances with his elongated crocodile-like snout and gigantic hulking frame).

Killer Croc in Detective Comics #660 (1993)

With the exception of Bane and Clayface (and maybe even Man-Bat), Killer Croc holds the distinction of being one of the few Bat-Villains who can physically overpower Batman in physical combat. I've always found Batman's villains to be more interesting than Batman himself. While not my favorite Bat-Villain (that honor would go to the Penguin), Killer Croc always stood out as being a green scaly monster among a group of relatively normal-looking people in costumes. So, suffice to say, his later evolution doesn't feel like a 'realistic threat' but more of a 'fantastic creation' that brought a horror/sci-fi feel to the Batman mythos [to be fair, Clayface, Solomon Grundy and Gentleman Ghost made me feel the same way]. What was Conway's 'grand plan' for Killer Croc, you wonder? Well...

In a 2009 interview with Gerry Conway on Cary's Comics Craze, Cary Ashby spoke with Conway about Croc's success:
“It’s a big surprise to me,” he said about Croc becoming more prominent in Batman’s Rogues Gallery of Villains since his first appearance in DETECTIVE COMICS No. 523 (dated Feb. 1983). “It was a surprise to everybody.”

Conway considers Croc “a good foil for Batman,” because Batman is intelligent while “Killer Croc is brutality and straightforward violence.”

“A lot of Batman’s Rogues Gallery is clever. He’s not clever,” he said. “It gave them (the Batman: The Animated Series creative team) a neat way to get into the underground.”

This is as far as we're going to go regarding the history of Killer Croc, but we have more articles about the Suicide Squad if you're so inclined:

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A collection of Knightfall house ads - 1993

If you remember reading and/or collecting Knightfall, congratulations. For anyone else who was too young or was taking a hiatus from comics at the time, Knightfall was a twenty-issue story arc from 1993 that ran through 4 different titles (Batman, Detective Comics, Shadow of the Bat and Showcase '93) that told the epic tale of the downfall [and presumed death] of Batman and the introduction of his new successor. I honestly thought that this was going to be my generation's 'moon landing', and by that I mean I really thought this was 'it' — this was going to be the end of Bruce Wayne as we knew it. What can I say? I was a pretty naive 11-year old. DC had just killed off Superman a year ago, [and I honestly thought he was staying dead] and we were living in 'extreme' times where anything could happen.

I wasn't able to collect/read these as they were being published — my limited financial assets were being diversified among numerous short-term investments (i.e. I was buying a lot of Marvel comics and non-sports trading cards). I did go to summer camp in the summer of '93 and another kid at camp (who was a massive DC fan) had brought his comic book collection with him. He didn't have any issues of Knightfall, but the Knightfall house ads were plastered in every second DC issue I thumbed through. They say a picture tells a thousand words, and these full-page house ads told me that something BIG was going down. I liked the way the ads created a narrative informing the reader just how grim things were getting for Gotham's dark knight. The red eclipse that was slowly starting to swallow the bat logo was also a nice touch of foreshadowing.

(click to enlarge)

This event did two major things: it introduced me to a whole slew of new Bat villains (I have never heard of Amygdala, Film Freak, or Mr. Zsasz prior to these ads), and introduced a lot of non-Batman DC comics readers to the Kelley Jones Batman — the one with the foot-long bat ears on his cowl who always seemed to be stooped or crouching. That was the Batman that would leave the longest lasting-impression on me and would be found doodled in almost every high school notebook I've ever owned (and then some). For a 19-part story arc, I realize we are missing quite a few house ads here [at least 8, by my count]. Rest assured, however, that the house ad was not original art. It was just the cover of the issue being described in the house ad, combined with a bit of enticing ad copy meant to summarize just how dire Bruce Wayne's situation was getting. These covers are real eye-catchers, but I'd like to gently point out that the cover of the issue was not always representative of the interior art.

It was interesting the way that Knightfall chapters 1 through 10 kept escalating and then... bam! denouement! Batman gets crippled by Bane! But wait, there's more! The house ads for Knightfall chapters 12 to 18 build up to the final showdown between the *new* Batman and Bane. [The house ad for chapter 18 looks downright pornographic. Please tell me Bane is wearing pants....] The Knightfall saga would become 1994's Knightquest, and then Knightsend, and would ultimately resolve sometime in early 1995. I think by this point fans had had enough, realizing that this storyline had already dragged on too long. Even the Knightquest and Knightsend house ads lacked the zeal the in-house DC marketing team had put into the Knightfall promotional campaign.

While I wasn't able to collect the issues, I was able to purchase the softcover Batman: Knightfall and Beyond novelization written by Alan Grant (I was avid book reader back then — I think I read the entire thing in one afternoon). While it filled in a lot of missing gaps, I still felt it was 'lacking' — probably because it was packaged for the young adult crowd. Sometime shortly after, a friend lent me the much thicker, much more mature-looking (and hard-cover) Batman Knightfall: A Novel by Dennis O'Neil. I seem to recall the latter being on the New York Times Bestsellers list during it's heyday, so it was a 'big deal' to finally get my hands on it. I remember it being leaps and bounds better than the Alan Grant novelization.

The final resolution of Bruce Wayne healing up, training himself to become better than before, and becoming Batman again really shouldn't have come as a surprise to me. In hindsight, one year prior to Knightfall being launched, Batman Returns hit the box office and grossed $162 million in North American sales. That very same year, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on Fox to a North American audience and is still being referenced as one of the BEST animated shows ever made. Ads for the new Batman animated film, Mask of the Phantasm, were also being heavily promoted in every DC comic available while Knightfall was in full effect. It wouldn't make sense to permanently retire a creative property that was generating so much revenue for the company. In my defense, I was a product of the 80s comic book culture and fake 'deaths' were still a relatively new gimmick in the early 90s. At least, that's how I'd like to remember it.

What Knightfall ultimately did for DC comics was to keep DC (and Batman) relevant during the deluge of X-books and Image/Malibu/Valiant comics that were flooding the market in the early 90s. Interestingly, some comic book analysts have theorized that the Knightfall/Knightquest/Knightsend story arc may have contributed to the comic book crash of the mid 90s — readers were experiencing 'burn out' from having to buy too many titles to complete a story arc that lasted way longer than it should have. Would it have been the sole cause for the comic book crash? Absolutely not. But I'm positive it wouldn't have helped anything.

Looking back on this now, I don't feel tricked or cheated. I feel like it was a good memory and a good time to be a comic book reader. Feel free to share any memories or stories you have from the whole Knightfall saga in the comments section below.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Batman v1 #408: The New Adventures begin

Batman #408 takes place immediately after Frank Miller’s Batman Year One storyline (Batman #404 - #407) which, as we all know by now, was essentially the post-Crisis reboot of Batman. DC wanted you to realize the continuity of this series had changed drastically, so they made sure to re-name it to Batman: the New Adventures starting with this issue. What’s interesting is that this issue re-introduces Jason Todd to the post-Crisis DCU.

If you were reading Batman during the 80s you are probably well aware that Jason Todd debuted in Detective Comics #524 (1983). Jason Todd was introduced back in 1983 because Dick Grayson (the previous Robin) had gone on to star in his own team book (The New Teen Titans) and didn’t really fit the 'youthful sidekick' role anymore. (Dick Grayson is first and foremost a Batman character, so any control over his characterization had to go through the Batman editorial team first. Somehow, Marv Wolfman [writer of New Teen Titans] managed to get then-Batman writer Gerry Conway to agree to Wolfman’s plans for Dick Grayson.) Jason Todd was introduced as a near identical clone of Dick Grayson (ex: part of a circus trapeze family, orphaned after parents were murdered, nice enough kid) when it was determined that the Batman series didn’t really work unless Batman had a sidekick to banter with. The pre-Crisis Jason Todd became a member of the Batman Family shortly after his 1983 debut, but he pretty much disappeared after Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985.

Batman #408 starts with Robin (Dick Grayson) and Batman fighting the Joker, and Robin getting wounded and left dangling for his life - the image of Robin hanging by his legs in the ad is an exact replica of a panel found on the second page of the issue. After all action is resolved, Batman tells Dick Grayson that it’s too dangerous to be Batman’s sidekick and that Dick should move on with his life (and we get a brief cameo of Dick as Nightwing). The rest of the issue goes onto to describe Batman’s first encounter with the new, younger Jason Todd. This issue is the first in a four issue story arc that concludes in Batman #411 - the end result is Jason Todd becoming the new Robin. Max Allan Collins wrote all 4 issues introducing the new Jason Todd. He wrote one final issue before Jim Starlin picked up the title and pretty much concluded the saga of Jason Todd. Starlin managed to resolve a dangling plot-line left open by Collins’ story arc, and included what I consider the epilogue of the re-intro to Jason Todd storyline: Batman #416. In Batman #416, Dick Grayson (as Nightwing) returns to confront Batman for kicking him out of his life and replacing him with Jason Todd. In this issue we get the summarized version of the origin of the post-Crisis Nightwing (remember, Nightwing was first introduced in 1984’s Tales of the Teen Titans #43). Crisis on Infinite Earths did not affect Dick Grayson/Nightwing THAT much, however his tenure as Batman’s sidekick had been shortened to 6 years and Batman booted Dick Grayson out when he was 18 years old. Immediately after this issue we go into Starlin’s Ten Nights of the Beast story arc.

Fan reaction to the new post-Crisis Jason Todd was not that positive. Collins’ gave us a Robin that was completely different from the status quo. After the Crisis On Infinite Earths there was a chance to reboot Jason Todd and make him his own character rather than a Dick Grayson clone, and Collins decided to take a chance and try something new. Jason Todd was brash, he was angry, he was excessively violent, he charged into battle without thinking, and he had none of the traits his previous incarnation had (ex: no circus background). Anytime you try something new there is always potential of a backlash from 'purists’ - and the fan reaction to Jason Todd was one of those examples.

Collins had already written two issues of Batman prior to re-introducing Jason Todd - he wrote Batman #402 and #403 (with some assistance from Jim Starlin). Collins had previous experience writing for detective/mystery comics (ex: Ms Tree, Mike Danger, Dick Tracy) which led to him being hand-picked by editor Denny O'Neil to darken the tone of the series to set it up for Frank Miller’s Year One storyline (both #402 and #403 have excerpts of an essay Collins wrote comparing Batman to Dick Tracy). I can’t imagine following up anything Frank Miller wrote would be very easy, since Miller was the fan-favorite at the time and would've been a tough act to follow. Fan reaction to Collins’ more traditional Batman stories didn’t go so well when compared to Miller’s newly established grim-and-gritty tone. Collins quit before DC could fire him. Toys R Us would later reprint the Collins' Batman issues and repackage them with Batman action figures they were selling in the early 90s.

Collins' essays from Batman #402 & #403. Click to enlarge and read.

For whatever reason, I completely forgot everything about this story arc, and it felt like I was reading it for the first time when I finally got around to re-reading it for this review. I was most surprised that Max Allan Collins wrote it, and if I had known, I probably would’ve waited a month or two since I just wrote an article about Mr Collins (see: Wild Dog) and I normally try to space things out a bit. I really enjoyed the re-intro to Jason Todd story arc and felt like the issues just flew by as I read them (as in: it was fast-paced, suspenseful and left me wanting more). Denny O'Neil mentioned that he had scheduling problems for that book and that a few issues fell behind schedule - this becomes apparent as you realize the Jo Duffy issue (Batman #413) was a fill-in. I don’t know why Jason Todd received such a bad rap, I liked where the story was going and was curious to see how things would resolve themselves. It seemed like the other writers after Collins weren’t sure what to do with Jason Todd - some would downplay his violent angst-y tendencies, and some would disregard them completely.

There were a few continuity problems with the story arc, but O'Neil quickly explained that issue #408 was a flashback tale that occurred 3 years in the past (at the time the story was written) - and if you do some DCU math, that kinda sorta syncs up with the post-Crisis Teen Titans continuity. A popular example of everything that was wrong with the Jason Todd character was a scene in Batman #415 (a mandatory Millennium cross-over story that disrupts the whole flow of the story arc - I can imagine Starling being pretty irritated that he had to include a story about Commissioner Gordon being a robotic imposter - but I digress) in which Jason Todd wields a shotgun and starts shooting at some armed guards trying to attack them. This was absolute Batman blasphemy, many Batman fans felt, as Batman never condones the use of guns - not even for his sidekick. Despite what the 'true' Batman fans felt, I think this was my favorite scene from the whole story arc and an indicator of the direction comics would be moving in the future - pushing things to the extreme even if they didn't make much sense for the character.

This article original published on the DC in the 80s tumblr in Nov 2013. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mark Belkin interviews Darryl McDaniels (DMC) for DC in the 80s

I discovered Run-DMC the same year I discovered comic books. The song was “You Talk Too Much” and it was a song telling some guy to shut up. It blew me away! I had heard songs about love, loss, and dancing, but this was about telling some dude to just shut up. Not the first hip-hop song I loved (that honor belonged to Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"), but it was certainly my introduction to one of the most important musical groups in history.

DMC and Mark Belkin

DMC is a super hero to me. There was a time in Brooklyn, where the Run-DMC "look"; the hats, the Adidas’, all black clothes, Portland Trailblazers coats, DMC’s gazelles, that was super hero gear to me. That’s what a hero looked like, a hero I could hear and listen to on tape over and over. When they got their video on MTV, when people started acknowledging how amazing hip-hop was, when I was able to find rap tapes in stores - THAT WAS ALL RUN-DMC! They broke walls, they put hip-hop on the map, they were larger than life, and for me, that made DMC a Super Hero.

I got a chance to speak to DMC at the Montreal ComicCon. We didn’t talk as much DC, but we all love comics and that’s the most important thing about this interview. How loving comics influenced him, as it does us. He’s an amazing human being in person. There’s a charisma, and energy, that just can’t be put into words. It’s like trying to take a picture of the moon, you just can’t capture what makes it amazing. If you’re ever lucky enough to speak to him, do it. He will leave a lasting impression.

Also of note, he has a comic book, which you can find at Darryl Makes Comics.

Mark Belkin: "So you were influenced by comics in the 70s, correct?"

DMC: "70s.... yeah, well, yes... 70s. I was strengthened and influenced by comics in the 70s. Which gave me the power to be the most powerful entertainer in the hip-hop universe. Captain America, Spider- Man, the Hulk... Marvel comics was big to me because I was a kid growing up in New York City. DC was cool, but Gotham and Metropolis was fictional. Stan Lee and them had super-heroes running around New York. Spider-Man's from Queens - I'm for Queens. Hell's Kitchen, the Lower East Side - you know what I'm saying - as a kid Marvel Comics showed me the world that I lived in that I was too young to investigate."

Mark: "Then you moved on to making albums - '83 singles, first album in 84 and King of Rock in 85. When you guys put out the King of Rock video and you started to do that mainstream - that cross-over - MTV wasn't playing any hip-hop videos... you were the first ones to give interviews, you were the first ones to be on TV and in the tape shops. Now, to people growing up in New York City, you guys were super- heroes. You guys were our inspiration. We loved hip-hop from Afrika Bambaataa to Funky Four +1, and Treacherous 3,... that was us. Suddenly, it's exploding and you guys were super-heroes. How did it feel being super-heroes to a whole group of people at that time in 1985?"

DMC: "It was nothing - we wasn't conscious of it, because we were trying to be our super-heroes: Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, Cold Crush Brothers, Funky Four + 1 more, Treacherous 3, Double Trouble. Before records - they were our super-heroes. Flash... Grand Master... Oh My God! It was like the super heroes came out of the comic books. Especially when you looked at the break dancers...  you know... the Adidas suits, the Puma suits, they in costume, it was crazy. We wasn't conscious of it because we were so busy having fun just doing the DJ/MC thing. That was our main goal, to be the best DJ. Not even to make the best records - we wanted to be the best DJs and MCs that people would ever come see. And that was the motivation - but that being said - for me personally, all that King of Rock stuff and everything that I was writing were just comic book adventures. "Crash through walls, come through floors, bust through ceilings, and knock down doors" - rappers don't do that , super heroes do. Even on King of Rock, [Reverend] Run says "I'm DJ Run, I can scratch", I didn't say "I'm DMC, I can rap"... I said "I'm DMC, I can draw" . You see, I was still drawing and reading my comic books then. And comic books... the story telling, the way you defined yourself - because Marvel comics taught me something about self- esteem. Marvel had it so 'adjective and say who you are': The AMAZING... Spider-Man, The INCREDIBLE... Hulk, The MIGHTY... Thor. So when Run put me in a group - see I was just writing rhymes as a writer - Run knew he wanted to be in the business because his brother was managing Kurtis Blow. So Run was 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 [years old] seeing that. Me, I only saw it at block parties and I heard it on the cassette tape - this was before Rapper's Delight. So when I found out what they was doing, because I was this kid with this crazy imagination, I was just pretending to be like the Amazing Spider-Man... so I'm a be the DEVASTATING MIND-CONTROLLING DMC. I'm a be the MICROPHONE MASTER DMC. Thor was the son of Odin. I was like "Odin is his father and they're from Asgard. He got a brother named Loki. Their lineage is royal. These guys are deities and gods.", so my father's name is Byford - so Thor being the son of Odin - I became " Son of Byford, brother of Al, Bad as my mamma and Run's my pal, It's McDaniels, not McDonald's, These rhymes are Darryl's." (From “Hit It Run” off of 1986’s classic Raising Hell). See, I was fighting the other name that was out there: "It's McDaniels, not McDonalds, these rhymes are Darryl's, those burgers are Ronald's. I ran down.." So, everything I was getting from comic books as presentation gave me the confidence to get onstage with Run. Run was the guy you saw in Krush Groove. I was just a guy... I was making believe I was Mellie Mel. I never knew I was going to BECOME Mellie Mel. Run's destination was to be BETTER than Mellie Mel. Even when my records was out... when I walked into a room and saw Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow, I was like a kid in a candy store - the same way that I come in here now and see Stan Lee. "Oh My God!" So, for me, it was relative to our existence, the way Wu-Tang is with kung-fu movies. So, you'd know, you're from New York..."

Mark: "well [Wu-Tang's]Method Man was Ghost Rider, the same deal..."

DMC: "Yeah, so it was all comic books, kung fu movies, hip-hop... you know prime time cartoons... Flintstones, the Jetsons and all. So that's all part of all of us."

Mark: “Breaking back like Ken Patera, that 80s wrestling..."

DMC: "Exactly, the 80s wrestling - Hulk Hogan and all of those guys. Brutus the Barber Beefcake, that whole era - it was just TOO MUCH for one kid to handle, but it was always exciting."

Mark: "Right right right... Slick and the Twin Towers... that whole deal."

DMC: "Yeah!"

Mark: "Well DMC, thanks so much. It was an honor to interview you for DC in the 80s, and good luck with the rest of the convention.”

DMC: “Stop by any time and say hello.”

Check out DMC’s new video with Myles Kennedy and John Moyer. In the same vein as Run-DMC/Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" released in 1986, it's a hip-hop/rock mash-up, but instead deals with an important message about current events:

Mark Belkin is a freelance writer and one helluva guy. Look for more articles from Mark in the future! 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

DC in the 80s reviews the 1991 GI Joe Impel trading card set - part 2

Why is DC in the 80s reviewing a non-DC affiliated trading card set? Read the intro.

Continuing along with our card/character review, we are once again joined by Chris Sheehan (of Chris is on Infinite Earths) and Aaron "Head" Moss (G.I. Joe: A Real American headcast) along with myself, Justin Francoeur...

Justin: There seems to be a subset within this set dedicated to the ‘original Joe team’ (aka: the first wave of G.I. Joe characters introduced in the comic books and action figures). The original group of Joes were the blandest and most boring characters I’ve ever seen or read (with the exception of Scarlett, Snake Eyes and Stalker). I mean, I can hardly tell them apart - they’re all dressed in green with matching green helmets. Thankfully the toy line got more ‘colorful’ by wave 2 (1983) otherwise I don’t think anyone could have retained interest.

Chris: I’ve always had a soft-spot for Clutch… who now goes by “Double Clutch”, friggin’ copyrights… at least he’s not “G.I. Joe’s Double Clutch”, I guess.

Aaron: Yeah, the action figures looked pretty much the same (except for the ones mentioned). I think a lot of the appeal to these characters is due to Larry Hama and the way he wrote them in the comic. It turned characters like Clutch from a run of the mill military toy into a character you can love. But giving credit where credit is due, if not for that first wave, we never would have gotten the later figures. Speaking of that first wave, me and my co-hosts talk about them on my 2015 Christmas special of G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast.

I personally think that the... sameness, of that first wave was intentional, to make it seem more legit, if you will. More of a military look and feel. When they realized they had a hit, they were able to go more outside the box.

And don't get me started on copyrights... rumor has it, that's the reason we didn't get (I think) Roadblock in Rise of Cobra.

Justin: Speaking of the toy line getting more ‘colorful’ by wave 2, I’ve always wondered if that decision came from Hasbro or if it came from Marvel comics. According to Graphic NYC’s interview with Jim Shooter:
“Despite a batch of lousy licensed comics, about everything from truck drivers with metal cranial plates that received CB transmissions to Space Knights, Marvel hit gold when they teamed up with toy company Hasbro for their G.I. Joe license. Marvel did all of the character and creative development for this new line of action figures, and Hasbro offered cross advertising with Marvel.”
In the same interview, Shooter himself chimes in:
“The response to G.I. Joe surprised everyone but Mike Hobson, Larry Hama and me... Once G.I. Joe was going, it became its own little industry and did very well. We were so successful with it, we were doing backflips. Also with Hasbro, we did Transformers, which I did myself.”
Aaron: I haven't been able to talk with Larry Hama yet (Larry, if you're reading this, contact me!), but most things I've read, said that Hasbro gave Marvel (Hama) the toys (or designs) and Larry created the characters and history. But how much they gave and how much Larry and company created, I haven't been able to confirm yet....

But yes, after that first wave, the toys started getting more unique and colorful.

Justin: Snake-Eyes is “the man”. Bar-none the most interesting character on the G.I. Joe team and the fountainhead all other mute non-Asian military-oriented ninjas are compared to. He brought a Batman/vigilante element to an otherwise relatively-bland military adventure series (at least for the U.S. Marvel comic book series). Hasbro (and I’m assuming Larry Hama) were so confident that Snake-Eyes could carry the book, that sometime after this card set was released, Ninja Force was introduced and pretty much dominated the series until the end. (‘Ninja Force’ was Snake-eyes and a squad of other newly introduced G.I. Joe ninjas that went on covert missions.)

Aaron: Snake-Eyes... Of course one of my favorites. And a large reason for that was Larry's characterization in the comics. In the show, he was there but was very marginalized... so much so, that his "arch-enemy" was given over to Spirit and Quick Kick. And his lady, handed off to Duke. I think the writers of the show didn't know how to handle a mute character, unlike Larry.

In the comic, Larry was talented enough to get around the mute "problem" and make Snakes an interesting and beloved character... Larry gave Snake-Eyes a family and mutilated him and told us about it in flashbacks. Larry Hama made Snake-Eyes, da man. And like you said, eventually the series became "Snake-Eyes Guest Starring G.I. Joe"...

Chris: This was the guy we all wanted to be when we had our action-figure battles… until I talked myself into being more of a “Gung-Ho” guy. Dependent on when you got into collecting Joes, you may have had to wait quite a while to get your hands on a Snake-Eyes figure. In my neighborhood/social circle I only knew one kid who had a Snake-Eyes in his collection. Looking back, it’s kind of a mixed blessing… back then we weren’t bombarded with constant repaints or rejiggering of the main handful of characters year after year… but at the same time, I know the 7-8 year old me would have absolutely loved having a Snake-Eyes of his very own!

Regarding the tail end of the Marvel Comics run… Snake-Eyes and company did pretty much take it over… and brought with them a very dollar-store approximation of the early Image Comics aesthetic. Just frightening to look back on these days… and comes across quite cheap looking. A sad way for this enduring (and endearing) series to go out!

Aaron: ... I agree with Chris. The last few years of G.I, Joe (at least to me) wasn't up to the first decade of the series. In fact, that's about the time that G.I. Joe and I parted ways... sadly. In fact when I get to issue #120 and beyond in my show, that will be the first time I'll have read those issues.

Justin: Something else worth mentioning is the ‘Special Missions’ subset dedicated to the Marvel ongoing series of the same name (G.I. Joe Special Missions) that ran from 1986 to 1989. (That pretty much cements the idea in mind that this was meant to be a comic-oriented set first, and an action figure set second.) Herb Trimpe [and his Tijuana brass band] provided most of the interior art for all 28 issues in this series, while Larry Hama scripted. There’s a trading card for every issue in this series - showcasing the cover art of the issue and a brief synopsis of the issue on the back of the card..

It wasn’t unusual for guest artists to contribute a cover - flipping through these cards I’m spotting covers by: Mike Zeke, Dave Cockrum, Ron Wagner, Andy Kubert, and Herb Trimpe himself. John R Beatty, Dennis Janke, and Bob McLeod typically provided the inks on these covers. The G.I. Joe Special Mission comics were real gems, as they usually focused on a few characters at a time, and the stories *rarely* ran longer than one issue. We’re talking really tight character development with actual story resolutions here - often with a heavy morale message about war being hell. In researching this article, these were an absolute joy to flip through as opposed to the chore of slogging through the never-ending dramatic subplots that seemed to dominate the G.I. Joe regular ongoing series during the late 80s. Often, the Special Missions issues touched on story lines that were occurring in the regular ongoing series, but gave the writer the chance to explore things that were happening behind-the-scenes. I don’t feel bad saying I prefer one over the other because Larry Hama was writing them both.

Chris: These were probably my favorite cards in the set. I’m not only a sucker for comic book covers, but I dig the feeling of importance a given issue or story gets when it has a trading card devoted to it. I think back to all the “event” cards strewn through the Marvel Universe sets… it would make something as banal as Atlantis Attacks or the Evolutionary War seem to be the most important thing to occur in a generation!

Aaron: While I really enjoyed the Special Missions series as a whole, I liked the subplots and backstories in the ongoing G.I. Joe title. Not saying that I liked it more than Special Missions, as they were more or less different creatures, so I liked them both for different reasons.

Justin: I never understood why they made the 2 G.I. Joe “leaders” look exactly alike. Duke and Hawk. The only difference is that sometimes Hawk wears a brown leather bomber. Otherwise, they look like twins. One of my first childhood memories was owning the Duke G.I. Joe action figure and bringing him with me everywhere I went. For some reason I called him “Jon-Jon” (probably easier than saying ‘Duke’? I don’t know…)

Chris: It was tantamount to betrayal seeing that Duke wasn’t top dog in the comics. Who is this Hawk guy anyway? I was always more of a Flint guy, but was cool with Duke being “the boss” on the cartoon. Hawk… who now goes by General Tomahawk… or General Abernathy… depending on which way the copyright winds are blowing, was never quite as interesting to me. Though, I’ll concede that if I read the comics before “tooning” in, I may feel differently.

Aaron: I got started with G.I. Joe from the cartoon, so I too was surprised to see that Duke wasn't the big boss in the comic when I finally started reading it several years later. That and finding out that Scarlet was with Snakes instead of Duke. Though I did prefer her with Snake-Eyes much better.

Of course one thing that the cartoon did that was smart (IMO) was to give Hawk brown hair so he didn't look so much like Duke.


Justin: Just wanted to re-iterate that Cobra had the coolest characters. They had the coolest designs and almost ALWAYS won any battles I played them in. I was especially fond of my Astro-Viper and my Hydro-Viper. I’m especially intrigued with Range Viper, whose design appears to have been heavily influenced by the MARS ATTACKS! aliens:

Mars Attacks card (1962) from Topps. wikicommons

Justin: It always bothered me that all of the other Joes got adequate helmets/headgear/flak jackets, meanwhile Hardball here rushes into battle with nothing more than a New York Mets jersey, his favorite baseball cap and a bloop gun. I’m no coward by any means, but if I was entering a firefight with heavily armed adversaries, I’d be wanting all of the headgear and body armor the army would allow me. I’d also be hiding behind the biggest immobile object I could find hoping a mortar shell or grenade doesn’t land on me. It’s not like he’s the only G.I. Joe to go into combat wearing minimal headgear/armor, amiright?

Justin: Heyyyyy. Wait a minute...

Chris: You’re not trying to say General Hawk is prejudiced against... baseball, are you? Oh, perish the thought, he’s a staunch Dodgers fan... a Brooklyn Dodgers fan! Sadly nobody’s told him they left New York like a hundred years ago. He still buys tickets for games at Ebbet’s Field for cryin’ out loud... and that place was demolished in the 60’s! If I can be serious for a moment, these cats can just pull of the hat look better than most.

Aaron: There were other Joes without hard hats, thank you very much... Like this one...

Aaron: ... oh... never mind...

Justin: With the exception of the trading cards featuring comic book covers, this set holds true to it’s claim of ‘all original’ card art. The mystery of who drew which art for which card seems to be something either nobody knows or wants to divulge. Why didn’t Impel include this info on the back of the card? Was this at Impel’s request? The artist’s? Were the artists embarrassed about their contribution to this set? It’s a mystery to me - and I’m a sucker for a good mystery, so I’m going to try my hand at solving this.

click to enlarge image. please note: no artist signature anywhere on the card...

Justin: I don’t know who all drew these cards, but I can 100% confirm that M.D. Bright drew about one third of them. M.D. Bright and Randy Emberlin were the most consistent G.I. Joe ongoing series penciller/inker team prior to this card set being released - so this would make sense. (M.D. Bright also listed this info on his wikipedia page - unfortunately he doesn’t list which cards he drew.)

M.D. Bright Green Lantern illustration. Property of DC comics.
Mark D. Bright (aka M.D. Bright) illustrated a lot of Green Lantern comics in the early 90s 

Justin: If I had to take a wild guess, since this is a very ‘comic book heavy’ set, I’d wager Impel tapped a few artists who worked on the Marvel G.I. Joe comic book series in the late 80s/early 90s - so we’d be narrowing down our selection to Rod Whigham, Ron Wagner, William Johnson, Andy Mushynsky, Russ Heath, Randy Emberlin, Bob McLeod, Tony Salmons, Fred Fredericks, Tom Palmer, Paul Ryan, Geof Isherwood, Herb Trimpe, John Statema, Ron Garney, and/or Andrew Wildman. I’m going to confess that quickly comparing and identifying art styles based on previous sketches isn’t my forté [especially when an inker can really alter a penciller’s finished work. see: Joe Staton], but while Mike Zeck, Todd McFarlane, Andy KubertJohn Byrne, Dave Cockrum and Marshall Rogers contributed art to the ongoing Marvel comic book series during this time period, I seriously doubt they would’ve done any original card art. They were pretty high-profile by the time this set came out, and would’ve commanded higher prices for illustrations. I have a feeling that Impel wanted to produce a ‘good’ set, but nothing too expensive. My best guess is that Ron Wagner (with Randy Emberlin on inks) did a large majority, but only Ron would know for sure.

A little more ‘internet sleuthing’ uncovered that Herb Trimpe illustrated at least four cards in this set. Saying he only did four would be a long-shot - but those are the only ones I can confirm. Trimpe's original art for Dial Tone, Desert Scorpion, Dusty and Falcon recently showed up in an ebay auction and sold for a cool $408 USD. I’d be surprised if he didn’t illustrate the other one third that M.D. hadn’t - there must be more Herb Trimpe original Impel G.I. Joe card art floating around out there somewhere...

Justin: That still leaves 143 cards [200 cards - 51 featuring cover art + 2 checklists + 4 Herb Trimpe cards] unaccounted for. Anyone care to wages some guesses?

Aaron: Much like Justin, I'm not able to look at art and pick out the artist most of the time. There are a small handful, but not enough to be able to tell from this card set. Plus like you said, the tracer... I mean inker... can sometimes make a big difference. I also did a little Googling but I couldn't come up with any other names than Bright. But I would assume that Trimpe did a lot of the cards as he was "the artist" for the book.


About twenty minutes after posting a link to this article on Facebook and Twitter, we had quite a few comments roll in. Popular guesses included Lee Weeks (when reached for further comment, Weeks told us he did not work on the G.I. Joe trading card set), Ron Frenz, Rod Whigham and Andrew Wildman.

Tweeter-extraordinaire @layne uncovered this gem from a 2015 e-bay auction:

...but of course, we couldn't make out any signatures on the art, so we're still back at square one. In case anyone was curious, this entire lot of 21 pages of original 1991 Impel G.I. Joe card art (illustrated on Marvel Comics Illustration Quality Paper) sold for a whopping $1,702.77 USD.


That concludes this segment of the 1991 GI Joe Impel trading card review. Check in for part 3 when we examine more cards/characters and scrutinize more of this set. As always, I want to extend a big thanks to Chris Sheehan and Aaron "Head" Moss for assisting on this one. I really enjoy hearing other people's anecdotes about this influential toy set, so please feel free to comment below. If you happen to know who did the original art for these cards, for the love of God, I implore you to comment and share below. Seriously, I'm losing sleep over this.

All of the cards can be found online, at the Trading Card Database G.I. Joe checklist. (Yes, they may be viewable online, but it will never substitute for the REAL thing.)

Most images in this article were either "borrowed" from or The Trading Card Database. Both are fantastic sites and I can easily spend hours browsing through them.