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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Jim Starlin talks with Mark Belkin about DC in the 80s

Jim Starlin is a living legend who is responsible for some of the most well-known characters and stories in comic book history. His list of stories include Batman: A Death in the Family, Infinity Gauntlet, Cosmic Odyssey, The Death of Captain Marvel, and the space opera era of Warlock. The timeless characters he has created include Thanos, Drax the Destroyer, and Mongul. We were lucky enough to catch up with Jim at the 2018 Albany Comic-Con where we ONLY asked him about DC in the 80’s, and avoided asking about any upcoming movies that may be coming out in April of 2018.


Mark: Hello, I'm here with the Legendary Jim Starlin at the Albany Comicon, and we're excited that Jim has agreed to speak to DC in the 80s. One of the first things you did, while working at DC comics during the 80s, was introduce Mongul in 1980. It was in a Superman/Martian Manhunter story from DC Comics Presents #27. Could you talk a little bit about creating Mongul and what you saw him as?

First appearance of Mongul
Jim: Well, it was my first chance at doing anything with Superman, and Julie Schwartz was the editor. Julie was an old school editor -- a legend in his time -- and he was coming around to the end of his career at this point and was just trying to 'play it safe'. I was just starting my career and had no idea what 'play it safe' meant, so I was trying to stretch things with Superman as much as I could as soon as I got in there.

Things like Mongul and Warworld (which was a giant planet filled with over-sized missiles and etc), and as we went along I kept trying to stretch it out further, and -- y'know -- every month I would have a new scripter (Julie had someone else scripting my plots) -- at every month it was a new character Superman had to interact/team up with.

We finally got to a point where we had Superman team up with Spectre. And then I thought "well this is where I've got to have Superman meet God"... but I couldn't tell Julie that! I was working with Len Wein on this particular story (if I recall correctly), and when I turned in the pencils and that, Len went "This not what you told Julie!" And I went "No, but watch... we'll get it through there." So Len and I went it and Julie looked through the pages and goes "Y'know... I don't remember this..." and I went "yeah! we talked about it...". Julie said ok and it went through, and Len was passed out with relief. So we had Superman meet God and it went through without any trouble.

panel from DC Comics Presents #29 (1981)

Mark: Now, going back to Mongul... you wanted to create a villain stronger than Superman (I think I read that)... and Mongul kinda had a 'fascist bent' to him. Was it a character you saw surviving long-term? Or a one-off throw-away villain?

Jim: Well... he was sort... I wanted to do my Thanos over at DC. But once I got in there, I wanted to do something different, so we got the whole Warworld in there. I wanted somebody... a BIG villain that would really... Superman had NOT taken on Darkseid by this point... so it really was Superman taking on somebody possibly more powerful than he was. It all led up finally to the Starman cross-over -- which I ended up inking myself -- that was really just these two boxing it out and... y'know... two titans smashing up the landscape and having a great time doing it.

DC Comics Presents #36 (1981)

Mark: So you mentioned that you had a chance to get God into the story. I feel like a lot of your Adam Warlock stories for Marvel Comics are very spiritual. The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel, I felt there was a lot of spirituality in there as well. Is it something that you feel drives you as a creator -- your spirituality and bringing that in? Or do you just think it's a great story-telling device?

Adam Warlock vs the Universal Church of Truth

Jim: It's a lot of different things. Part of it was that my grade school years were a parochial school: religion pound into me six days a week, having to go to mass, nuns being teachers, rebelling against all of that. Later on trying to find an alternate spirituality and looking through things like Carlos Castaneda, Wilhelm Reich... just going in different directions...

Mark: Was Carl Jung part of that?

Jim: Carl Jung was part of the reading list... I was just soaking all of this stuff up. The Warlock, Captain Marvel and Thanos stories -- just about everything I did -- had some thing coming out of that. If it was not an actual spirituality, it was a story-telling device or it was a reaction to my parochial school upbringing. When it gets as complicated as that it's very hard to say "this is that, and this is that". It's a mix.

Mark: It's a part of who you are, and it comes out in your storytelling.

Jim: Yeah, what comes out is who you are, and it doesn't always make sense.

Mark: Did you ever get a chance to explore something in your storytelling that almost spoke back to you about something you didn't see about yourself -- almost like a Grant Morrison or Rick Veitch sort-of-thing? Them writing something and then realizing afterwards that they were speaking through something... or that something was speaking through them. Have you ever had that experience?

Jim: Probably with the Death of Captain Marvel more so than anything. My father had died of cancer a year before, and I hadn't quite worked all that through, but I did better than my brother who bottled it up all this time. But as I was working on that story and afterwards, I said "Oh! This is the cheapest therapy a person could find."

Mark: ...They're paying you...

Jim: Yeah! And it went through about 9 printings or something...

Mark: It's a wonderful graphic novel and probably one of MY favorite Marvel stories of the eighties.

Jim: Thanos is my favorite character, but the Captain Marvel stories were my favorite stories.

Mark: Fast-forwarding a little bit, you got to work with the New Gods in Cosmic Odyssey with Mike Mignola. It's very exciting and still remembered by many fans as one of their favorite stories of the eighties (at least for me). Now, you got to do a little bit of New Gods after that. How was it working on that? Were you excited?

Jim: I was excited -- I always liked the New Gods. Y'know, Kirby was one of *my* Gods. So, Mike [Mignola] and I, they [DC comics] approached us -- they had a book called "The Books of Magic" which apparently mapped out their entire sorcerer/magical/fantasy worlds of DC, and they wanted something like that for their science-fiction. Y'know, I thought about it for a while and then decided that I didn't really want to do that, but I had a good story and I wanted to tell THAT story. And they sort of forgot about it -- y'know, I'd turn in plots and they'd approve them -- and they sort of forgot about the fact that they wanted this map of their science-fiction universe until, I think, Mike had two issues of it done and they suddenly realized that I had gone off the rails on 'em. They were really pissed off about it...

Mark: Oh, they were?

Jim: Oh yeah. Quite. And so they actually dumped the book out there with very little fanfare. There was very little promotion on it. They figured it was just going to disappear -- y'know, just a loss leader for them. And they were very clear about it -- they were very upset that I had treated them that way. As it happened, I continue to get royalty cheques on that to this day. They were a little off the mark on that one.

Mark: Is that why, even though you worked on the first few issues of the New Gods spin-off, you weren't on it after a few issues?

Jim: No, that had to do with Batman. For Batman, we did Death in the Family -- which was their best-selling book that year -- but it turns out they had all these licensing (pajamas, lunch boxes, and stuff like that) and the licensing department was very mad, everybody got mad, and they needed somebody to blame -- so I got blamed. And within 3 months all of my work dried up -- in fact Paris Cullins and whoever the new writer was drew up a new first issue that came in ahead of *my* New Gods issues that I had already written. Y'know, everything just sort of fell apart at that point at DC for me, and I went back with Marvel. And it worked out okay because I went over to do Silver Surfer and the Infinity Gauntlet. So I can't complain about that.

Mark: Would the Infinity Gauntlet have been a New Gods story, possibly, have you had stayed with DC?

Jim: Well, I was going to be doing the New Gods series, and I think we had 3 or 4... we had a number of them planned out ahead of time, but once they got down on me, they said "You have to drop all these other books and finish off this Gilgamesh project you're working on. We've already paid you for one book, and we're not gonna pay you for a new project, so finish that." So I finished it and went back to Marvel.

Mark: So, was Gilgamesh II not a sort of passion project for you?

Jim: I got into it. It wasn't my original idea -- actually, Peter David had proposed the science-fiction Gilgamesh to DC. You'd have to check with Peter on this, because I get conflicting stories on this of how it happened. They approached me, but I thought they had paid him off on creating a story. I've talked to him recently and he remembers it differently.

All I know is that I got caught in the middle of whatever was going on between them -- but they approached me and I thought "well, Gilgamesh is kinda interesting" because when I first got into the business in the 70s at the cocktail parties and that, EVERYONE was talking about "let's do a barbarian Gilgamesh" and I had never read it at that point, so I finally looked it up and went "ok" and I read it and thought "that could be kinda interesting".

I wasn't into barbarians, so when they approached me about the science-fiction version of it, I said "Can I do Bigfoot?" and they said "what do you mean?", and I said that I wanted to do it more humor/science-fiction -- which is how I handled it. They seemed to be fine with it at that point. It was never one of my big sellers. I always enjoyed it and I wish they would reprint it someday, they should have the rights to it -- I don't know why they haven't. Everything else of mine is going to be reprinted. It would be nice to see that in a nice volume someday.

Mark: I thought HEAVY METAL magazine would be a good place for something like that, too. Just that sci-fi with that sort of wit and the imagination. I felt it was in that spirit or in that world. I don't know if you did...

panels from Gilgamesh II #1 (1989)

Jim: Yeah, I was coming from a lot of different spots for where I was. There was a lot of things that, in the eighties, that was kind of "breaking ground". The sort-of homosexual relationship between the two main characters. Y'know, a lot of the strange political things I was just beginning to toss into my work at this point. At the same time, it was obviously esoteric -- it didn't become a big seller like Cosmic Odyssey or Infinity Gauntlet -- I still had a great time with it and still have good memories from it.

Mark: Were there any New Gods stories that you wish you could've been able to tell?

Jim: I wanted to explore more of the relationship between the bugs and the New Gods. I'm sure there were a couple other things I had in mind, but I just can't recall them at this point twenty-something odd years later.

Mark: There's this classic scene with Batman punching Orion, and he says "His name was Forager!". Were you excited to write Batman when that was given to you? Was it a life-long dream come true (like it was for some writers)?

page from Cosmic Odyssey #4

Jim: Yeah, I'd done Superman and I'd always wanted to do some Batman -- but there was always something going on. Frank Miller had done that terrific Year One, and they had someone -- I can't remember who -- writing it afterwards and sales were really going down. This was the point that they had sold off the theater rights to a producer I can't recall, so Batman wasn't a high number for them at this point. So Denny [O'Neil] asked me to do a fill-in issue... and he was kinda surprised he like it, so he asked me to do another one. By the time I'd done four fill-ins I asked "so am I the regular writer on this book at this point?". As it worked out, I started doing this regularly. I always thought that going out and fighting crime in a black and grey outfit while doing it with a teenage sidekick dressed in primary colors goes beyond child abuse... it's child endangerment, and  as you can see, it went where it went.

Mark: Well thanks so much for talking with DC in the 80s today, Mr. Starlin.

Jim Starlin just wrote a story called “Berserker”, drawn by Phil Hester, for Aftershock’s anthology book Shock. Aftershock Comics will also release a new edition of “The Art of Jim Starlin: A Life in Words and Pictures” on May 2, 2018. Starlin also has his comic-book series, Hardcore Station, available on Amazon. And you will probably see him on TV because his story is the basis for this what may be the most successful movie of the year.

Mark Belkin

Saturday, April 21, 2018

All-Star Squadron: The First Year Review (But Not Really, More of an Excuse To Ask Questions)

So I have been reading through All-Star Squadron, starting from #1. In the 1980’s, I read about 30 issues, but the other 35 have been sitting there begging me to read them -- for a good 30 years. You know what I mean: you have stacks of comics, new ones, but you have a whole bunch you bought years ago that you want to get to,... but life happens.

It’s been a fun read so far: Roy Thomas spinning yarn about Pearl Harbour, the early days of World War II, FDR hanging out with Winston Churchill, while Atom and Hawkman pal around with the world leaders. The art started out with Rich Buckler, and moved into Adrian Gonzalez, but all of the issues feature the inking of Jerry Ordway, and his work just shines through. To me, Jerry Ordway is THE Golden Age of comics, and that’s just my truth.

panel from All-Star Squadron #3 (1981)

Roy Thomas decided to use lesser known heroes, to replace more known Justice Society of America members. Johnny Quick was a stand-in for the Flash, Liberty Belle was a stand-in for Wonder Woman. Those two made sense. Then he had Robotman be a stand-in for Green Lantern. Robotman was created by Jerry Siegel, who also created the Spectre and the Star-Spangled Kid. That’s kind of nuts, because all three of those still play a role in DC today. I think Robotman is a perfect stand-in for Superman, and Air Wave would have been a good stand-in for Green Lantern. Energy powers, and Air Waves' name in the 40s was Larry Jordan and in the 80’s he was retconned to be related to Hal Jordan. This leads me to my first question.

1. Why was Robotman used as a stand-in for Green Lantern? I wish I could ask Roy Thomas, but anyone who may have seen an interview with Roy about the topic, I would like more information.

panel from All-Star Squadron #1 (1981)

The first three issues of All-Star Squadron focus on time traveling Per Degaton and his team of villains that he picked out through different time periods. He brought my favorite, Solomon Grundy, to 1941, all the way from 1947!!!!! And then he got Wotan (who is like Aleister Crowley, kind of), Sky Pirate, who is a pirate but for planes, and Professor Zodiac, who looks funny, but is an Alchemist. So they do the 'super-hero vs super-villain' stuff, and the All-Stars win.

In issue 4, they go to see the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and we get a strong reactionary page, where they show the All-Stars with their jaws dropped. Even Spectre -- who is God’s angel of vengeance -- was moved. Good stuff by Roy Thomas -- really humanizing everyone. So they fight some loser named Dragon King, who maybe showed up again, maybe. The first of these evil villains who are all weird Axis Powers guys. Issue #5 were some Nazis trying to blow up the Statue of Liberty and issue #6 was some Aztec Zombie who had some connection to the Hawks and their ancient weapon/reincarnation gimmick. Honestly, it wasn’t as captivating as the first issues. Then it’s the holidays, and there’s this villain -- Baron Blitzkreig -- who is a Nazi Dr. Doom. I enjoyed his story and such. There was a lot of concentration camp stuff in these issues, and it was pretty powerful. There was a time in the 80's where DC comics was definitely looking to push boundaries.

Ok, so now we are going to get to my second question. In issue # 10, some weird alien invades the planet and takes all the All-Stars out. There’s a cool Joe Kubert cover with the All-Stars hanging on the Alien as he leaves. Robotman, Libery Belle, and Johnny Quick are all attacking him, and he’s very “whatever” about it, grasping Hawkwoman and taking her on his ship.

Ok, so get this: there’s this scientist who was Hawkman’s very first villain in the 40s. He is reincarnated too, like Hawkman and Hawkwoman. But now he’s an evil scientist because entertainment was always worried about innovation. So this evil scientist (his name is Dr. Hastor, not important) reveals that the Alien is just his creation, as is the Spaceship the Alien is in, and he’s going to take over the world with it. Simple enough, right?

In issue #12 he reveals his plan. Cover dated August 1982. Now follow this: there is this good-looking scientist who is named Dr. Napier, blonde guy, who visits Dr. Hastor and tells him a great war is coming. A great war that he can predict because he had a formula that predicts it. So this blonde scientist knew exactly the kind of world war that would happen just by using his intelligence. Still with me? The blonde scientist then gets a bunch of scientists together on a secret island, slowly having them disappear so that no one would notice. What are they doing on the island? Why, they are building a fake spaceship and creating a fake alien, which will have a fake invasion, which will then be so bad, that it will bring the world together and stop the NEXT great war.

IS THIS NOT THE PLOT TO A HUGE PART OF THE WATCHMEN? This issue was published four years before The Watchmen. Now don’t get me wrong, Alan Moore is a genius of geniuses, but this seems very derivative. I know [former President of the USA] Ronald Reagan made some speeches talking about the concept of aliens bringing the world together, but… here is my second question.

2. Is this a plot device that was used before this? Does this come from someone else? Some old Serial?

Just curious. Creators always borrow from other creators, I just want to know if this exact plot device came from something older. Thanks for reading.

That infamous alien creature from The Watchmen

Mark Belkin

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reviewing 1991's Angel and the Ape mini-series

Years ago, I picked up the first issue of this mini-series from a local convenience store*. I was familiar with Batman, Superman and the like -- and even dimly aware of superheroes like Dr. Fate -- but Angel and The Ape would hardly be household names anywhere. I read the first issue with earnest and was disappointed to find that I was 11 years too late to wait for the next issue. Without a local comic shop to go to, I resigned myself to not knowing how this series ended... until now, that is!

First thing's first, some background information: created by the famous E. Nelson Bridwell (best know for The Inferior Five), Angel and The Ape first appeared in 1968's Showcase #77. The premise was simple: Angel O’Day was a lady detective and Sam Simeon was a comic book artist and a talking gorilla. Together, they fight crime. Jokes arising from the unusual pairing and cultural fads (such as a cover depicting Sam A product of the "groovy" era of comics arising from the popularity of the Adam West Batman TV show), they starred in their own bi-monthly series for 6 issues in 1969. As with most characters from this period (Detective Chimp, I’m looking at you!), they were relegated to Z-list status and seemingly lost in the shuffle of Crisis on Infinite Earths, along with dozens of other characters that DC had amassed over 50 years. What happened to all those characters after the Crisis was explored in a more dark and serious manner in Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Animal Man.

Angel and the Ape v1 #3 (1969) Bob Oksner cover.

Phil Foglio had made a bit of a name for himself in the black-and-white, indie comix scene of the late 80s with books such as Myth Adventures and Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire. He was hired by DC to write and draw this revival mini-series. That being the case, you get a real sense of authoritative intent and uniqueness in this mini-series that was rather refreshing compared to the 'Ford assembly-line' quality of the other comics of this era.

page from Myth Adventures #1 (1984). published by Warp Graphics.
Pencils by Phil Folio, inks by Tim Sale

The cover of the first issue is something of a joke on the 'grim and gritty' trend for comics at the time. The cover text boldly states “THEY’RE BACK... BUT WHO ARE THEY, WHAT ARE THEY NOW?” Angel and Sam are presented in dark silhouette, however, you can clearly see them as their normal lovable selves in the upper left hand corner near the date and issue number.

Angel and the Ape v2 #1 (1991). Cover by Phil Foglio.

The storyline is simple, but effective: it tells the origin story of how a young Angel met Sam in Africa. It cuts to years later when they’ve become established detectives in New York City. Sam is going out on a lunch date with Dumb Bunny from the Inferior Five (and half sister to Angel). Bunny ducks out of lunch with Sam and asks Angel to go with her to talk about things.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #1: mocking the grim
turn Batman had taken since the death of Jason Todd

At lunch, she admits to her sister that she’s in love with Sam and want to be his girlfriend. Angel is taken aback at this, both for the obvious physical implications (Bunny says she’s not interested in sex anyway) and for the moral reasons -- like him being essentially a part of their family. It’s also implied that Angel has feelings for Sam herself, but won’t admit it.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #1

During this time Sam is dropping off some art pages to "DZ Comics" when he sees that he’s turned into a human and everyone else has turned into a gorilla. After a spit second, they all turn back to normal, and everyone is shocked at his gorilla appearance after his concentration is broken (Sam uses light mind control to make people not notice or care that he’s a gorilla). It turns out this is all part of a scheme orchestrated by Sam’s grandfather, none other than Gorilla Grodd.

Grodd is worried about the population growth of Gorilla City becoming unsustainable into the twentieth century, and when he approached King Solovar about this issue Solovar felt that when that time came they would be ready to show themselves to the world. Grodd doesn’t buy it and has found a green glowing entity called the "Green Glob" to alter reality to destroy humans by making them unintelligent gorillas. He needs Sam’s telepathy to communicate with the glob, to obey his commands. Sam doesn’t want any part of it, but he’s kidnapped by Grodd. Angel and Bunny try to contact the Justice League, but after a typically crass phone conversation with Guy Gardner, Angel, Bunny and the rest of the Inferior Five decide to rescue Sam themselves.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #2: Guy Gardner being Guy Gardner

In the middle of the third issue there is a cool sequence where Angel is experiencing Sam’s memories of Gorilla City and his grandfather, while a fight between Grodd and the Five are happening in the bordering panels. It reminds me a little bit of Sergio Aragon├ęs' comics in MAD magazine.

It's in the rescue that Grodd breaks Bunny’s neck, telling Sam the only way to save her is with the glob. Grodd comes off as a particularly menacing villain in this comic’s universe. He’s almost like a Sideshow Bob or Mister Burns (from the early seasons of The Simpsons), since his adversaries are more comical and simplistic, he becomes more diabolical and evil.

The whole cast of characters comes off like a comfy sitcom from the 70s -- similar to the Mary Tyler Moore show. Angel is an optimist (Mary Richards), Sam is her more earthy, pessimistic co-worker (Lou Grant), Dumb Bunny is the lovable, airhead blonde (Georgette) and etc.

It ends with Sam communicating with the glob and using its powers to outsmart his grandfather. He gets the glob to give Grodd an uncontrollable desire for junk food which distracts him long enough for Solovar’s forces to raid his hideout. Sam asks the glob to heal Bunny, with it does. It also briefly turns Sam back into a human and the romantic tension between Angel and Sam is address by the two, but they decide to remain friends and Sam turns back into a gorilla.

panels from Angel and the Ape v2 #4

It’s a decent little story, my only criticism would be that it maybe gets a little too heavy on the romantic triangle between Sam, Angel and Bunny, and that distracts from the storyline. I have a feeling like they might have been expecting this to turn into an ongoing series, and they would play the "will they/won’t they" angle up like many romantic sitcoms. It’s also unfortunate that the cool subversion of the 'damsel in distress' trope is a bit undone with the neck-breaking "women in refrigerators" moment with Bunny and Sam.

The last issue of the mini-series finishes off with a belated but interesting letter column. It seems like I was not alone in being unfamiliar with the Silver Age incarnations of A&A and The Inferior Five. Many of the letters lamented the fact that there had been such sparse material in the "humor" genre of comics.

In the letter column, series editor Mike Gold defends the cartoony style by citing the fact that one of the most respected comic artist of all time, Will Eisner, drew in a cartoony style. Gold also cited a few other artists with cartoony styles (ex: Howard Chaykin, Joe StatonFrank Thorne and Rick Burchett), and points out that if you take away the hard angles in Todd McFarlane's and Frank Miller's art, even they would be perceived as cartoony. 

. Foglio’s style is "Cartoony", but expressive. It would be very easy to turn his art into animation. Under different circumstances, I could see this being adapted to an animated TV show (resting somewhere in tone between the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Tick).

1991 was not a year receptive to this book; when the first issue was published in March 1991, the classic Batman "Venom" storyline ran in Legends Of The Dark Knight, Marvel was publishing its seminal "Weapon X" storyline in Marvel Comics Presents and Todd McFarlane was in the midst of his run on Spider-Man. Drugs, madness and pain. This was what comics where turning into. Foglio would go on to do a Stanley and His Monster mini-series for DC, and now runs a successful webcomic, Girl Genius.

Lighthearted and quirky revivals of groovy 60s characters is not what the audience was craving. I won’t go so far to say it’s perfect or somehow a lost masterpiece, but it’s competently done and a readable comic in an era where that would become more and more rare as Extreme 90s artists would throw graphic storytelling to the wind in favor of cool action figure designs. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and, for under 5 bucks to get all four issues, it still holds up today as an enjoyable read.

If DC ever does put out a collected edition, it would be nice if they included the original 60s appearances as well as the 2001 Vertigo revival by Howard Chaykin.

Angel and the Ape pin-up by Phil Foglio

*Editor's note: Anthony explained that his convenience store sold bagged bundles of back issues -- mainly Marvel, DC, Image, Malibu, Valiant, and Continuity (circa 1986-1994). It would be a mixed bag with no particular theme other than 10 comics for around 2 bucks. This is why Anthony has such a  well-rounded knowledge of late 80s/early 90s comics. ;) 

-Anthony Kuchar

Anthony hails from Welland, Ontario. A Graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts Program, he has been involved with the theatre scene in Niagara for many years. Anthony has had an interest in comics since he was young and his favorite 80’s DC books are Batman: The Cult, Sandman, Frank Miller's Ronin and Watchmen.