Archive for January, 2012
Continuing the production of new portraits for Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook, whose subjects are largely chosen of late by a need for biographical images in their Wikipedia articles, a new Barry Windsor-Smith portrait now joins the sketchbook.
Sometime during the summer of 1976 I was taking a break from work at Continuity to read a Dr. Strange story in Marvel Premiere #3, from 1972. It was illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith and inked by Dan Adkins, towards the end of Barry’s memorable run on Conan the Barbarian.
The story begins with Dr. Strange brooding the streets of New York with a feeling of impending peril all around.
I remember finishing the opening sequence with a sense of exhaustion from reading it, which strangely identified with how Dr. Strange felt in the story. It wasn’t necessarily the classic Stan Lee text which caused it, but rather the very moody imagery. I found myself going back over it to try to understand how Barry had pulled off such a excellent effect on the reader. What struck me most about it was how in several key panels, the movement was directed from right to left, against the natural reading flow.
Barry had broken a cardinal rule of storytelling about movement in panels needing to be from left to right, so the composition would remain harmonious with the direction the eye traveled while reading. He did this in order to create a new rule, that breaking the first rule contributes to a feeling of disharmony; or the feeling of impending doom that Dr. Strange had throughout this sequence. A reader has to struggle with trying to move on to the next panel, when the present one is pointing them backwards to the previous one. In this case, it resonated with, and amplified the discomfort that the Dr. Strange was experiencing in the story itself.
Some time later during a First Friday gathering at The Studio, I mentioned to Barry the effect his storytelling in that issue had on me. I asked him about his use of contrary movement in the opening sequence. He responded with enthusiasm that someone had noticed what he’d done, saying it’s the first time anyone mentioned this detail to him. I’m still not certain today if Barry didn’t just say that so I’d feel good about having noticed it.
This happened only a few years after the comic book appeared and it was still during the early period of fandom, long before the information super-highway turned the art of comics reviews into an avalanche of analysis. So I think it’s not far fetched that I might have been the first one to mention it to him, though not at all likely the first to have noticed it. This particular issue has received critical acclaim from reviewers on the web. It’s also become a popular back issue that brings a hefty price on the market. A quick eBay search shows almost a hundred copies currently being sold. In one such listing, for a graded CGC issue, the bidding is at $469 as of this writing, with more than 15 days to go till the auction closes.
Barry and I connected again after my long disengagement from the comics scene in the 1980′s. Sometime around 1995, in the aftermath of industry news about my case for Ms. Mystic being dismissed due to the Statute of Limitations, Barry contacted me by email to offer some support. It wasn’t just a short email communique. Barry, who never seemed to do anything half-heartedly, sent an extensive letter with much good advice and life-philosophy, coming from a friend whose concern could be felt through every byte of the email. It was the dawn of a new age of communication that we hadn’t dreamed would descend upon us so quickly back in the mid-1970′s. Last year we connected again by email over his Facebook page, that he didn’t seem too happy about spending much time with. I’ve since also cut down presence on mine. But it’s all helped to catch up on old friends, and compensate for being out of touch over the years. And especially seeing how the colleague’s work developed. Barry Windsor-Smith’s “Internet Portfolio” remains one of the more inspiring and compelling legacies of the comics medium. His Wikipedia biography tells the story quite well, as does the bio on his own web site.
Though there’s hardly a specimen of Barry’s art that’s not a memorable creation onto itself, there’s something especially compelling about his project Rune, done with Malibu in 1994. The protagonist he developed allowed Barry to let loose with a more fluid and playful drawing approach, which seemed to have an effect on everything else as well. Machine Man, Weapon-X and Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller have become exquisite masterpieces of illustration and graphic narrative, as does nearly everything Barry Windsor-Smith touches. Below is a select gallery, with much gratitude to our friend Joe at Grantbridge Street and other Misadventures. All images are copyright by their respective owners.
It was the turbulent time in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when Alan Weiss told me over the phone that Gray Morrow was no longer with us. He didn’t get much into detail other than about his deteriorating illness. Gray had been suffering a severe case of Parkinson’s disease. He passed away on November 6, 2001. Alan also said that Jon B. Cooke was preparing a tribute for him and asked if I wanted to contribute a drawing and a few words. I did both and it was published in Comic Book Artist #17, February 2002. I recently found a scan of the drawing at our good friend Steven Thompson’s web-tribute to Gray Morrow, Shades of Gray. Steven is the fabulous curator of Booksteve’s Library of cultural delights. The Gray Morrow blog is a wonderful peruse and highly recommended for a memorable ride with some of the sweeter eye candy to behold in comics art.
Gray Morrow was a frequent visitor during Continuity’s heyday in the 1970′s. His towering gentlemanly presence was immediately felt when he walked into the studio. He seemed to always bestow an atmosphere of calm and serenity. The same quality that was also the hallmark of his art.
Mark Evanier, in tribute, said that Gray Morrow had fallen between the cracks of the industry with a realistic style that mainstream publishers didn’t believe would be received well by readers who were more used to the action and melodrama publishers liked to promote. There was nothing really melodramatic about Gray. Nor about his art. It wasn’t overly forceful or violent. It didn’t scream out at the reader. It rather whispered and tantalized with an air of grace, rhythm and harmony. Perhaps this was one of the reasons it looked more realistic than mainstream art. It was calm, settled and quite every-day looking. Just like most of our visual world is. That was also its strength.
Evanier additionally noted that regardless of how strongly publishers believed they knew what the comics reading audience wanted, the bottom line was that comics sales have never really reflected the marketing savvy that publishers claimed. They had never succeeded in breaking the barrier of the hardcore fan market. Which seems like good reason to believe that artists such as Gray Morrow, whose work was a little to the side of mainstream, were placed on the fringes of the industry without due cause, other than perhaps publisher or editor presumptuousness. Some artists were simply not given a chance to compete within the monotonous house look that publishers had carved out for themselves. Given this reality, it is not out of the question to assume that this is one of the reasons that actual comics sales have always floundered. Publishers have been trying too hard to predict a market that is apparently far more diverse than their marketing shortsightedness could admit to.
It apparently took a great deal of conviction for Gray Morrow to persevere with his style in the face of pressure from colleagues and publishers to move closer to the center. Or rather let loose with more angst and melodrama. But this conviction was also the same quality within Gray that sought to bestow a more peaceful and harmonious visage to the comics medium. Gray Morrow wasn’t a fighter in that sense of the word. He didn’t believe that he needed to struggle with his art in order to shape it into what the publishers wanted. The fight he fought was to quietly persevere in his work and allow it to speak for itself. He lived this conviction about his art, and his life, all the way till the end. When his illness became evidently irreversible, Gray Morrow surrendered to it, in the same way he had surrendered to the vision of harmony and grace that he believed his art should evoke.
Gray Morrow’s art feels much more at home today within the more diverse medium that’s rapidly evolving. He was too good a man and an artist for the comic book industry of his time. So good that he’s made an indelible unique mark on it, and profoundly predicted many of the current trends in comics art.
Images from Steven Thompson’s Shades of Gray
Readers who frequent Daniel Best’s blog, 20th Century Danny Boy, are likely familiar with his coverage of prominent intellectual property rights trials and stories of late, including the Jack Kirby Estate VS. Marvel and the Jerry Siegel Estate VS. Warners/DC Comics. He’s been able to get his hands on an extensive amount of court transcripts, contracts and other documents relating to these and many more happenings in the comics periphery. His postings have practically pioneered a surge in documenting this type of material, and making it accessible to the public.
Daniel has now compiled the extensive documentation from the Siegel Estate VS. Warners/DC trial into an online book that he’s offering for free download in PDF format. The Trials of Superman is published by his own imprint Blaq Books. A polished presentation that transcribes the original documents into digital format, made much easier to read considering the shear volume of material. Having read some of it in the original postings, I recommend this book highly for some behind the scenes history of the comics industry, as told under oath.
Daniel sums up the book on his site:
Every word uttered in court is here – with one notable exception – and the testimonies of Mark Evanier and Paul Levitz are fully intact. You’ll read Levitz explain the many deals done for Superman from an insider point of view and how DC Comics very nearly bought Marvel Comics in the late 1990s. You’ll read Evanier discussing how Siegel and Shuster have been screwed over the decades, along with mention motion picture and entertainment experts giving their own views on just how valuable the Superman property is.
Blaq Books, Australia | 2012 | 1055 pages
Compiled and edited by Daniel Best
Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Best
Mary Blair was one of the profound influences on the world of animation, injecting it with an artistic flair and delightful simplicity that also placed her work in the category of fine art. Last year Google celebrated her 100th birthday with a Google Doodle, to honor her career with the Disney Company. It brought my attention to her Wikipedia biography that had no copyright free portrait image – and not even the traditional infobox that bio portraits are placed in. I’ve been meaning to rectify this for a while and finally got around to it. A refreshing addition to Portraits of the Creators.
Images of Mary Blair’s art from The Art of Disney Animation
The art galleries have been in a state of migration through the various site incarnations for some time. In an effort to catch up to the present site portal, which seems to have somewhat stabilized of late, new galleries can now be viewed through these links in the main menu.
- Covers Gallery: A complete gallery and checklist of my comic book covers, along with a few industry related publication covers as well. Listed in chronological order, the last cover in the gallery (Planet of the Apes #7) was the first professional comics assignment I’d done.
- Portraits of the Creators: The complete gallery of Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook, becoming a robust collection that continues growing.
The nice menu with icons, along with the wonderful site engineering, is the work of Milenko Popovic in Romania, who created the site design theme, Mystique. He is a one-man operation and founder of Digital Nature, and a talented programmer and designer who provides his work under a free license such as GNU and Creative Commons. Milenko’s programming, architecture and design are some of the finest available for WordPress format.
More galleries coming soon as the migration continues.
Most of the creator portraits for the last couple of years have been chosen by a need for them in biographical articles at Wikipedia. As an active editor for about 5 years now, I’ve become enamored by the comics project there. A unique synergy of the collaborative encyclopedia and a medium rife with content, has made the project one of the more fascinating and informative among its sister entertainment industries.
The portrait of Al Feldstein below is the latest. In this case, the biography itself was in dire need of repair. No inline citations caused it to be saturated with obtrusive tags directing editors to try to improve the article. The few external references it had were mostly dead links that needed some research to be restored. There was also an important section hidden in the editor text box because it was a large quotation from an interview Feldstein had once given. Wikipedia prefers not to use such large bodies of text directly from sources, and advises editors to paraphrase them in their own words, to uphold encyclopedic style. I spent some time finding and formatting citations, and reshaping hidden texts, as I was joined by a project editor who helped with final polishes. The result was an effective and gratifying fix for a biography of an important artist and editor, well deserving of good representation.
Feldstein’s interviews about his early career carry some of the more fascinating and revealing stories about the “wheeler-dealers” who shaped the comics industry in its infancy. His covers at EC Comics became an imprint of look and design for their time.
My generation grew up on the editing brilliance of Al Feldstein. At the helm of Mad magazine from 1956 to 1985, he shaped one of the more memorable satiric journals to ever see publication. An era wherein an entire generation affirmed the cultural relevance that Mad had achieved. Under his tenure, the publication grew to 8 times its circulation, from the time he started editing it.
Soon after retiring from Mad, Feldstein moved into rural Wyoming and then to Montana, where he lives today, producing detailed and colorful Americana paintings of landscape, cowboys and wildlife. He also manages a guest house on his 270 acre ranch, the proceeds of which go to rescuing injured wildlife in the region.
Al Feldstein – Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook
Gan Golan and Erich Origen, creators of The Adventures of Unemployed Man that I illustrated a chapter in, have been visibly active as official Super-Hero representatives of the Occuppy Wall Street movement. Now Gan Golan, true to finest activist tradition, has partnered in an affilliate movement, ArtIsMyOccupation, for the benefit of creators from the broad range of the arts. Here’s the press release, have a look and show some support if inclined.
Hello Occupy Artists, Musicians, Performers, Printmakers and Pranksters!
We are culture workers. We are part of the 99%. And today, we are excited to be launching a new project to support occupy artists, called ArtIsMyOccupation.
ArtIsMyOccupation (AMO) is a project founded by artists and for artists who are involved in Occupy and other movements for Economic Justice. Our sole mission is getting artists who are working on the front lines of social change the resources they need.
We are now accepting applicants for the first round of grants. Visit our website for more information.
Find AMO online:
Be sure to JOIN so we can update you about ongoing opportunities to receive support. Also, anyone can donate to the AMO Artists’ Fund, where 100% goes to the 99%.
*FORWARD THIS WIDELY*
During Hanukkah, I conducted a few one-hour workshops with kids ages 10-12 at the Israel Cartoon Museum in the city of Holon. It was originally slated as one session with 30 participants. The holiday apparently left a lot of kids wanting for a Super-Hero drawing fix and demand rose to fill 3 sessions. It all worked out so well that we’ll be doing another set on Passover. It was especially rewarding to see so many talented children, and be able to contribute a little to how they approached drawing. A chance to promote comic books within a general audience was icing on the cake. The Museum is a wonderful haven for the comics and art lovers, and where the Joe/Andy/Adam Kubert exhibit continues. The staff was just marvelous. All in all a fine event with a promise of more to come.
Alex Toth was another artist whose name was a household word at Continuity of the 70′s. With a so much seasoned and young talent alike referencing comics art masters, to better evaluate the quality of new work, Toth’s subtle line and mesmerizing imagery were spoken of and shown around frequently. Platitudes for his art covered storytelling intricacies, an almost abstract use of black shapes, delicate drawing and stunning visual clarity. Everyone had something to learn from Alex Toth’s work. In a tribute, upon his passing away in 2006, Tom Spurgeon took note of Toth’s artistic achievement.
People will say he was a great craftsman, and they’ll be right, but what Toth did was a little further along than that. Toth reached that scary point where it felt dangerous to look at some of his best work; you ran the risk of being pierced by a force that practically shimmered on the page, that inhabited every image, like a master chef’s dessert so rich it made your eyes water in protest, or a singer’s voice so pitch-perfect it made you want to leave the concert hall, if only to catch your breath. His handwriting exuded an element of purity in cartooning that could outclass other artists’ fully-rendered sequential art. Toth’s black and white work in particular displayed an almost transcendent understanding of drawn art as a visual story component. When we as readers come to a greater understanding of the effect that great art has on the reading of comics, Toth’s reputation is likely to grow even larger than it is today.
Alex Toth was also known to have a short fuse, especially for young artists seeking advice or criticism of their work. Still, he often extended himself above and beyond the norm. His informative critiques are considered as gold to the craft. But they also came with a price of being a target for the master’s angst.
The late Dylan Williams suffered it happily. He eventually thanked Toth with a touching story about their friendship, struck over correspondences that also revolved around their common love for comics art.
I’d take breaks for a month or two. I would eventually dig up some new old art and we’d write back and forth. It was around that time I found out I had leukemia. I never told Alex… I don’t think this comic is much of a tribute to Alex but it is the only way I know of telling him thank you.
Steve Rude suffered a famous encounter after sending a Johnny Quest story to Toth for appraisal. It ended a little less friendly than the affair with Dylan, as Rude elaborated in respones to Toth posted by David Marshall.
Oh, when I did receive Alex’s letter, I called him. It started out nicely enough, but when I attempted to explain the things I felt him in error about, he let out a few curse words and hung up. That’s what I recall of this situation. If it helps people to learn from my mistakes, then all the better.
Some years later, Warren Ellis pulled no punches commenting on the story between Toth and Rude, in his Do Anything column at Bleeding Cool, where he also criticized Toth’s career as being somewhat of an unfulfilled destiny.
Toth was another angry man of comics, a world-class artist who knew everything about storytelling except what made a good story. He was famous for his handwritten critiques of other artists: his destruction of comics artist Steve Rude (who spent a lot of time in the 80s doing Kirby pastiche work) got out into the wild a few years ago, and you can find it on the web fairly easily. It is at once a masterclass in storytelling intelligence — Rude is a wonderfully gifted illustrator, but storytelling isn’t his strong suit — and an appalling portrait of Alex Toth as an embittered intellectual sadist. Nothing he said was wrong, but he nonetheless manages to paint a picture of a man who would argue with his own breakfast over betrayals real or imagined. A man who hated “mature content” in modern comics, he is perhaps best known today for his original design of SPACE GHOST, who survives into the present as a parody show host.
I’m not sure that Ellis’ comment can be considered as entertaining as that it’s delivered by a writer who spares little arsenic and laughs for things that might crawl up his own sleeve.
Only a minor sampling of turbulence that raged within, and around, a giant and master of the comics craft. Like Spurgeon said, recognition of Alex Toth’s influence will only escalate in time. Analysis of his cumulative body of work will become a pursuit of comics readers, creators, critics and historians, for generations to come.
New addition to Portraits of the Creators.
I first met Mike Friedrich in early 1977 at Continuity Studios. He came in to New York from his home base in the San Francisco Bay area to make arrangements with writers and artists for production for the 12th issue of his black & white independent comic book anthology, Star*Reach. I had barely finished my first year as a professional artist at that point. The comics scene outside of the current DC and Marvel universes was still new to me – and also a bit overwhelming to absorb in such a short time.
I had seen a few issues of Star*Reach at the studio by then, but the influence it would eventually become was an elusive notion to most everyone in the industry at the time. There were a few other such attempts that rose on its heels, like Sal Quartuccio’s Hot Stuff, though none came close to matching Star*Reach for talent and content. So, when Mike came into the back room I shared with Marshall Rogers, and asked if I’d like to write and draw his first 8-page color installment for the 12th issue, my overwhelmed mode kicked into overdrive. Still, I took it in stride and accepted the offer.
Some time later, Mike called from California to ask about progress on his story. Being buried in work from DC and Continuity, I had to stall him a bit until I could come up with a premise. When it became difficult to stall, I finally outlined an idea on the phone. It was a sci-fi short about an alien fugitive being hunted by an inter-galactic law man. The two would fight it out on Earth in the best tradition of bang-pow-boom action. It was easy to tell that Mike wasn’t thrilled about the direction. But I had been immersed into a skyrocketing pop-comics career at that point, and along with my lack of familiarity with the other-than-mainstream content that Star*Reach preferred, it precluded my ability to step out of that mode for a more substantive story. I tried to console myself that I’d draw it so well that no one would notice that aside from the flashy action, there wasn’t much of a tale there. Last time I talked to Mike on the phone was in mid-October. Deadline was getting close and I still had nothing to show him. No script, no art, no character designs. The entire affair seemed to be heading towards an inevitable train-wreck.
In hindsight of years and history, I sometimes wondered what got into Mike to offer this story to me. I was a rising popular mainstream talent at the time, that’s true. But I was also an inexperienced rookie, certainly not known for the type of work he liked to publish in Star*Reach. And there were countless other candidates more suitable to adorn the color debut for such a watched and followed publication. I was certainly not on par with the likes of Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Steve Englehart, Gray Morrow, P. Craig Russell, Dave Sim, Walt Simonson, Steve Skeates, Mary Skrenes, Jim Starlin, Mike Vosburg, Len Wein, Barry Windsor-Smith or Roger Zelazny, and others who’d all graced Star*Reach with the type of work that made it distinctive. There was a definitive air of excellence to the publication, which rose above the norm, where the intellectual narrative was no less significant than the art. The stories did not hinge on action-adventure as a primary plot vehicle. Star*Reach had set the tone for a more mature comic book that was a breath of fresh air for the medium. And here, in this most critical junction, after 11 issues of an outstanding black & white journey of distinguished graphic storytelling, and for its first installment of an 8-page interior color story, Mike does a seeming about-face and goes for the a relatively inexperienced pop-mainstream artist, who’d not yet shown signs of writing skills that would measure up to the challenge, and who was mostly considered a clone of the DC Comics house-style that Star*Reach aspired to stand in contrast of. Now, in hindsight of years and history, it all seems somewhat odd and inexplicable.
Events that followed our last conversation in October were also an about-face for myself. By mid-November, I had declined previous work I was scheduled to do for DC and Marvel, and left New York in pursuit of a new chapter in life. It all inadvertently led to producing something entirely different for the first color installment of Star*Reach, than the story we’d agreed to. Part of the events that led to it are in the links below, which give a rough enough idea, when read with a grain of salt.
A more comprehensive overview of my career, that led to this incident, is in this two-part interview with comics chronicler Bryan D. Stroud, the Silver Age Sage.
Comics historian Richard J. Arndt wrote an in-depth analysis of the impact Star*Reach has had on the comics medium. He considers it the first truly successful grass-roots predecessor to the graphic novel. Arndt bestows on Star*Reach the honor of having opened the door to the burgeoning independent comics market we enjoy today. His interviews with Mike Friedrich reveal a vision held by the consummate writer and pioneer, who pushed the comics medium forward in a way that perhaps no other single independent publisher could boast.
In one of those interviews, Mike mentions that my first color installment is the only one of the Star*Reach stories that hasn’t been reprinted in later collections. Beyond the fact that the vignette artwork had no text, it was actually much more of a mission statement than a story, though a story does certainly weave through it, between-the-lines, as Mike said in the issue’s editorial. The wider issue of why this work carries an air of tense silence about it, is perhaps that it does not truly fit into, or match the excellence or intricacy that Star*Reach became known for. It doesn’t really belong next to such works as Howard Chaykin’s Cody Starbuck, P. Craig Russell’s Parsifal, Frank Brunner’s Elric Of Melnibone – or the myriad other more plot intense stories that saw print in Star*Reach. It is mainly a thing onto itself, spawned in a time of personal upheaval and extraordinary transition. A bump in the timeline of comics history that was perhaps better left in its own corner of solitude.
The decision Mike made to publish the offbeat piece, did not seem to be logically contrived, or made with other reasonable options on the table. But I would venture that he would not have published it, had it not somehow complimented his own aspiration and vision for Star*Reach and the comics medium. Mike was in a situation where he could either decline the story altogether, and wait until the next issue for the debut of a more suitable color work – or he could reach for the stars like the 8-page story itself did, in its offbeat way. Like in so many other junctures in his career, Mike decided to go for it and publish The Old, New and Final Testament. He took a considerable chance on the fallout that could come from it. The thrust of the work was sure to irritate many raw nerves in a diverse comics readership, not to mention the oddity of breaking the fourth wall in the personal way the story alluded to.
In deciding to publish it, Mike preserved a small piece of comics history that continues to roll on today, as evident by this website complex. It might never be suitable for collection or reprint next to other stories it shared a space with. It will remain an item unto its own, that’s perhaps best left to be what it is. A bastard child of a tumultuous time, but also inspired by Mike’s own vision for the comics industry in its reach for integration into the world it thrives in. A vision that’s become verified now, decades after Star*Reach debuted, with the flourishing independent comics market and the profound proliferation of the medium into modern culture. Mike Friedrich, pioneer and visionary, reached for the stars - and brought the comics heaven a little closer to the Earth.
New addition to Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook.