Monday, December 22, 2008

"The Best Gift Ever"

sgGeorge Rears - The. Best. Gift. Ever.

I'm the last of five kids. Not only that, my four older siblings are within five years age of each other. Then, there is aseven-year gap. Then me.

My family moved to West Berlin, Germany, in the spring of 1974. All of us except my eldest sister. She was finishing her senior year in high school and was bound for Rutgers in the fall. She would never end up moving overseas with the rest of us, but would join us during the holiday seasons and the summer break.

For the rest of us, we lived off the army base in a small neighborhood filled with American families. Surprisingly, the experience growing up in this neighborhood was remarkably similar to that of anybody growing up in suburban America. Tons of kids in the neighborhood, always ready for a wiffleball game, bike race, or flashlight tag. I bought my first baseball cards while living there, and my first comics, too. But with two adults, four kids, and an over weight dog, the little rancher was a bit tight.

After one year, we moved to a much larger house. The new house was great--the basement had a bomb shelter, the back yard went on and on forever, and the attic had a few hidden rooms (To this day I'm convinced that people were hidden in these spaces during World War II). It was a great place for and eight-year old kid to explore and develop his imagination, which was important, since this house was not anywhere near the base or any American neighborhoods.

I think living far away from the rest of my friends fed my love of comics. I'd see friends at school and cub scouts, but most of my spare time at home became comic book time. Understandably, by 1976 I was buying most of the DC line.

One of my older brothers also bought comics, but being a sophomore in high school, the last thing he wanted to discuss with his third grade sibling was the logic of Batman teaming up with an elderly Sgt. Rock in one issue of Brave and the Bold, and then teaming up with a seemingly perpetually young World War II super hero Wildcat in another issue. Still, he lent me his comics, and gave me an appreciation for Jack Kirby, not a bad deal at all.
sg
What I didn't know at the time was my eldest sister, Susan, also had enjoyed comics when she was younger. I would find out later that she used to sneak a flashlight up to her to read comics after "lights out" each evening. Being eleven years old, Susan and I weren't that close. The year I finished first grade in Berlin Germany, She graduated high school in New Jersey. We did have a lot in common, though. Obviously, we liked to read. We both took our studies very seriously and did well in school. Ironically we both ended up graduating from the same high school and university, although in different decades.

By Christmas of 1976 , I had been collecting comics for two and a half years. In Germany back issues were hard to come by, so my knowledge of comic book lore was limited to about 36 issues (or 18 for the bi-monthly titles) of story. It was devastating whenever a new creative team came aboard a title, because I just assumed the team that had been working on it when I started reading the book had been doing it forever, and would continue forever. For Christmas, I had asked for a bunch of Mego action figures, and if memory serves correctly, I think that year was the year I received the Wayne Foundation playset!

Yet the best gift I received that year, a gift I still have and treasure to this date, didn't come from my parents, didn't come from my comic collecting brother, or even Santa. That Christmas, my sister gave me a hardcopy cover of Superman from the 30's to the 70's. This book was a collection of Superman from his first appearance up until about 1971. It was mostly black and white, but every other decade section started over with a color insert featuring a collection of covers, and at least one story partially in color. I don't know how long it took me to read the 375 page book--but I remember re-reading it for most of 1977!

The book itself remains one of the greatest collections of Superman stories ever put together. From the first Superman story in Action Comics, to the most important 1970's Superman story (Kryponite Nevermore!), this book had it all. It featured the first appearance on the Superman/Batman team, the first Lori Lemaris story, the classic Golden Age imaginary story where Clark and Lois watch a Superman feature with Clark distracting Lois every time Superman switched identities. It has it all...did I mention Bizarro? The Luthor, Prankster, Toyman team? Superboy meeting President Roosevelt?

All of a sudden, I got to see this broad tapestry of Superman lore laid out in front of me. The super-vigilante from the Golden age, Super policeman from the 50's, the king of imaginary stories from the 60's, and the newer, relevant Superman from the 70's. This book opened up my eyes to the idea that various talents could interpret a character, and that each interpretation was not only valid, but each came with its own appeal.

The book also came with an introduction by Superman expert E. Nelson Bridwell, which gave me a behind the scenes look at the character, which I could never have imagined, such as the influence the radio show had on the comic book with the introduction of kryptonite (to let the voice actor of Superman take a vacation while not interrupting the show) and the introduction of the Superman/Batman team.

Throughout my childhood, this book remained one of my all-time favorites. I remember reading about a similar Batman book on the dust jacket, and then finding a copy at the Berlin American library (and more recently, on eBay). Reading that book led to a sixth grade debate about Bat-Hound: Can you believe children in the 70's knew nothing about a one-shot character, and a canine character, at that, from the fifties? All of a sudden, I was becoming the scholarly expert on super heroes.
sg
This book still sits proudly on my bookshelf--right next to its modern descendents, the DC archive collections. Its nowhere near mint shape. In fact I still remember spilling chocolate pudding in it years ago. Reading it today, It looks as if I must have spilled some other things on a few pages, too. I would never think of replacing it, even if I found the book in mint condition, because this isn't just a comic book. This was the Best Gift Ever.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Vincent Bartilucci - 1974

sg Vincent Bartilucci - My dad grew up in Brooklyn during the 40's. At that time and in that place almost every kid read comic books.

Not many of them collected comics, however. Collecting anything--comic books, baseball cards, postage stamps, or whatever--was for kids with a bit more money in their pockets than my dad and his friends had. Instead, if dad got his hands on an issue of Superman or More Fun Comics he'd read it from cover to cover then hand it off to a friend.

That friend would read it and hand it to the next kid. On it would travel from kid to kid until every child on the block had a chance to read the comic or until it fell apart from all the handling. Then it'd get tossed in the trash. I don't think it ever occurred to my dad or his friends to save their comics. Comics were ephemera, a thing to experience rather than to own, more akin to a stickball game or a Gene Autry movie than a baseball mitt or a cap pistol.

So, it is that my dad had no comics from his own youth to pass on to his comic book obsessed son. But he remembered a few of his favorite heroes and sometimes he would talk to me about them. There were three in particular about whom dad would reminisce.

First in this trinity of Golden Age greats was Captain America. Dad was a really big fan of Timely Comics' patriotic Nazi-smasher. I'm sure that the Star-Spangled Avenger placing so highly on my own list of favorite do-gooders is due in no small part to my dad's love of the character. Last year, when all the 24 hour news channels reported that Captain America was being killed off, dad called me at work to make sure that I'd heard. After verifying that I had my copy of the fateful issue reserved, he asked me why they (Marvel) felt the need to kill off Cap. Although he hadn't followed the character since he was a wee lad, he sounded a little bit sad about the whole thing. I, of course, assured him Cap'd be back before he knew it. It's comics, after all.

The second of dad’s childhood favorites was Fawcett's Lieutenant (later Commander) Don Winslow of the Navy. Winslow was an officer in U. S. Naval Intelligence who got into the types of two-fisted trouble one might expect of such a character. Whenever dad mentioned him, he was always Commander Don Winslow of the Navy, spoken in a dramatic near-shout. No matter how many times I heard him say it, dad's silly recitation of that name could always bring a smile to my face.

The final Golden Age hero that dad would discuss with me is Captain Marvel, and it's the Big Red Cheese who is the real subject of this story. Dad was a huge fan of the World’s Mightiest Mortal...maybe. I say "maybe" because dad had one incredibly crucial piece of info about Cap incorrect and this one bit of misremembered data kind of muddies the water. But, more on that in a few paragraphs. Right now, we've got to take a trip across the Atlantic.

In August of 1974, my immediate family--mom, dad, sis, and I--visited Scotland where my mom was born and raised. As I recall, I had a wonderful time across the pond even though the trip took me away from my swimming pool-based Aqua-adventures for three whole weeks. I met all sorts of family for the first time and visited cool sites like Edinburgh Castle. I also made a lot of friends among the neighborhood kids and spent a significant amount of time out in the street playing.

Despite the fun I was having, I still had a four-color monkey on my back and before long I was looking for my comic book fix. During one of our trips "down to the shops" I spied a Spider-Man comic and snatched it up. Now, I've never been the biggest Spidey fan but it was the only comic book I had seen starring a character I actually recognized so I bought it. Beggars can't be choosers, right?

But it wasn't a comic book. At least not a real (read: American) comic book. It was a God-awful, magazine-sized abomination with black and white interiors reprinting a variety of old Marvel stories in unsatisfying little eight to ten page snippets. I did not know at the time that this Marvel UK publication was aping the traditional weekly comic magazine format familiar to all British children. Nope, all I knew was that I was glad I didn't live in Scotland. The big family, new friends, natural beauty, and fantastic history and culture of the place could all go hang as far as I was concerned. These poor people didn’t have real comics! (Please forgive my seven year old self's limited world view.) Anyway, I figured I wouldn't see another real comic until I was back on U.S. soil. But I was wrong.

A few days before our vacation ended, I was traveling around Glasgow in the company of my Uncle Albert and we stopped in at what I believe was a pub. Y'know how the light rapidly dwindles the further you go into such an establishment? Well, this place was downright inky in back! In retrospect, I suppose it could've been a restaurant of sorts or even the world’s darkest lunch counter, but I'm pretty sure it was a pub.

And, if it was a pub, it was the coolest pub in human history because, just inside the entrance to the place where you could still see your hand in front of your face, stood a wire rack containing, among other things, the first real comic books I'd seen in over two weeks. One comic in particular caught my eye and wouldn't let go. I stood there transfixed, staring at and, most likely, drooling over Shazam! #12.

I had never seen an issue of Shazam! prior to that moment but, thanks to my dad, I recognized that mystical acronym instantly. It was the magic word used by Billy Batson to change into the World's Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, just like it said right there on the cover.

And what an amazing cover. It's like a primer on all things Shazam. You've got Cap flanked by his two primary partners in adventure, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr. Below the flying Marvels are their three alter egos, Billy and Mary Batson, and Freddy Freeman. You've even got the disembodied heads of Uncle Marvel and Dr. Sivana making an appearance. Man, I needed this comic!

There was one small problem. Not only was it the first issue of Shazam! I had ever seen it was also the first of DC's 100 Page Giants I had ever encountered. The darn thing cost 60 cents U.S. which translated to well over one pound sterling! I probably didn't have enough to buy that comic even if I had my vacation money with me, which, of course, I didn't.

My uncle saw me gazing intently at the comic rack and he quickly pulled Shazam! #12 from its wire cage. He took another comic book from the rack and paid for them both. He informed me that the comics were for the long flight back home and that they were going to my mom for safe-keeping until the family was airborne. I thanked him--gosh, I hope I thanked him--and we left the pub / restaurant / world's darkest lunch counter.

Later, we met up with the rest of the family back at my grandmother's house and I excitedly told my dad that Uncle Albert had bought me a comic book starring Shazam. "Do you mean Captain Marvel?" he asked. Having forgotten the 'fine print' below the logo ("The Original Captain Marvel") I said, "I think they call him Shazam now." Dad thought that was kind of silly. Captain Marvel was a perfectly good name. Why change it?

On the flight home, mom handed me the comic books my uncle had purchased for me and I dove right into Shazam! #12. I immediately grasped that, despite the title of the series, the star was, indeed, still called Captain Marvel. I also quickly learned what Shazam stood for; dad could never quite remember all the gods whose names made up that magic word and the power each one contributed. I was, however, surprised by a major mistake the folks at DC had made.

As I mentioned earlier, dad had one piece of Shazam-lore incorrect. Oh, he had the facts about the old wizard, the magic word, the extended Marvel Family, the talking tiger in the leisure suit, and the World's Wickedest Scientist right. But he always told me that, in his non-powered form, Captain Marvel was Billy Batson, crippled newspaper boy. Shazam! #12 depicted Billy as hale and hearty but showed Freddy Freeman, Captain Marvel Jr.'s alter ego, as walking with a crutch. What a goof! On the part of DC, of course. Dad couldn't be wrong about something so important, after all.

I reported this discrepancy to my dad who just figured it was another silly change made for no good reason. I soon discovered such was not the case. Despite having all the other particulars straight, dad's memory had somehow placed that crutch under Billy's arm not Freddy's. I'm not sure why.

Back on Long Island I looked for more issues of Shazam but I didn't find any at my usual comic book haunt, Clearview Stationary, until just a few issues before the series was cancelled. I picked those up then followed the feature when it reappeared in the pages of World's Finest and the digest comics run of Adventure. Unlike many Shazam purists, I enjoyed the Don Newton version of the Marvel Family and the World's Mightiest Mortal soon became my second favorite DC hero, right behind a certain sea king.

Through all the years, however, I was never able to convince my dad that Billy Batson wasn't the one with the crutch and the newspapers. Even when I showed him reprints of 40's era Captain Marvel stories that contradicted his memories, he was not persuaded. Now, my dad wasn't a stubborn man--he had absolutely no problem admitting when he was wrong. But, for some reason, he wouldn't budge on the matter of crippled newspaper boy Billy Batson. He was utterly convinced about these 'facts' regarding Cap’s alter ego and was sure that somewhere along the way someone must have made the decision to reassign these character traits to Freddy.

My dad, Richard Bartilucci, passed away last month. He was 69. It's funny where your mind goes when you're grieving. I guess death is so big that you can only process it in little pieces--little "sadnesses". I find myself really sad about stupid little things. Like, I'll never get to tell dad, "Hey, Captain America is back." And I'll never get to hear him intone, Commander Don Winslow of the Navy, again. And I’ll never have another chance to convince him that Freddy was the one with the crutch...


Okay Rob, fellow Hey Kids folks, I promise my next story won't be so depressing. I have to tell you about the other comic my Uncle Albert bought me, after all! Like Shazam! #12, it was my first issue of a soon to be beloved series, a series with a title that I initialed misread back in 1974 and, therefore, misunderstood for years to come.

Ooooo. Cliffhanger...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Russell Burbage - 1989

sg
Russell Burbage - 1989

Seigi No Nakama, aka "Friends of Justice"

In 1987 I went to a small town called Aya in Miyazaki Prefecture. It's located on Kyushu, the southern-most island of Japan. Most Americans who know of Kyushu have hard of it because it is where Nagasaki and Okinawa are. The average American, however, has never heard of the island, let alone the town of Aya. I'm only trying to explain how off the beaten path I was. It was worlds away from Tokyo, believe me.

My job was to teach English to adults and children in my town of 7,500 people. I worked in the Community Center and several dozen people of all ages came to me each week. I enjoyed teaching, but after two years at it I was looking for some way to spice it up.

In 1989 I hit upon the idea to write and draw a series of comic books in English and Japanese. This was right when the movie Batman starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson was taking the world by storm. I wanted to harness Batman's popularity and use it in my English classes. I had always considered myself a bit on the artistic side, and compared to some of the horrible dreck I saw in Japanese manga I felt confident my Fred Hembeck-like style could get the job done. I also enjoyed the translation process. I worked with friends to get just the right nuances to certain phrases, and my Japanese language skills improved.
sg
The only problem I had was that I was finding it hard to "dumb down" existing Batman stories for my audience, whose English was not all that good. My favorite Batman stories were by the likes of Steve Englehart, Alan Grant, and Denny O'Neil; none of them exactly slouches in the plot and dialog department. This was of course several years before Batman:The Animated Series came along and would have pointed me in a totally different direction.

T
hen it suddenly occurred to me to use the Justice League of America as my cast of characters. In their simplest form they are a group of good guys who come together, fight the bad guys, and save the world. No kid would find this hard to understand. Plus I had a large collection of JLA issues with me in Japan and the full run of Super Friends, which was actually a simpler, easier to follow "kiddie" version of the JLA.

The next problem, however, was who would be in "my" Justice League? I wanted to use the best characters, but there had been so many different versions of the JLA by 1990 that I had too many options to choose from. So I decided to consider how I could supplement my stories with other media. I already had Batman and Aquaman videos in my classroom collection. Everyone knew Superman from the Christopher Reeve movies. I had heard that there was going to be a Flash TV series that fall. And I hoped that I could eventually lay my hands on some Lynda Carter Wonder Woman videos.

So this meant that I would use the "original" Justice League of America. I decided to adopt whole-hog the Silver Age DC universe. After all, these were the characters and stories I knew by heart anyway.
sg
Of the original seven, I still had to consider Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter. I pretty quickly decided to add J'onn. Not only was he the soul of the then-current JLA but he had a very different look to him compared to the other members. And if my students did not warm up to him, I figured I could write him out the same way he left the group in the comics, by having him leave with his people.

Green Lantern presented my first real dilemma. I was a huge fan of Hal Jordan, but I had always liked John Stewart, too. So in order to give Japanese kids a better representation of the USA, I decided to swap out Hal and replace him with John. So in "my" universe John is the only Green Lantern on Earth. He is friends with the Flash and Green Arrow. He was the seventh and final charter member.

In DC continuity, Green Arrow was the first new member. I liked the bearded, caustic version of this character and thought he provided another "type," so he was in.
sg
That brings us to the Atom, the JLA's second new member. When he was used well in the comics he was an excellent character. All too often, however, he was a speck on the Flash's shoulder. I guess I probably would have used him except for one big problem: in Japan, the character known in the west as Astro Boy is called Atom. He is very, very well known, so if I had added Ray Palmer to the cast I knew my students would say in disgust, "That's not Atom!" So, because of his (bad) name recognition, I reluctantly decided that the Atom was out.

Then I got another brainstorm: I decided to switch the histories of J'onn and Ray! Instead of Martian Manhunter leaving, as he did in 1969, I would have the Atom quit. Ray Palmer did leave in the early 1980s, so I was only moving the resignation forward a few years. Looking back at it now, however, I wonder why I didn't just ignore the Atom completely. I guess I was trying to show the kids that the group had a history.

Chronologically, that brings us to Black Canary. With a nod to both traditional and revised continuity, I had "my" Black Canary be from another dimensional world where the Justice Society of America existed, but she was the daughter of the original. When both her parents were killed, she decided to leave that Earth and join the JLA. (Oh, and another change I made was to totally ignore the Leave of Absence Wonder Woman took in the comics at about this time. As far as I was concerned, she never left.)

And that brings us to our third female member. I felt that the Hawkman-Hawkwoman partnership was an exciting relationship. I wanted to have married characters in the group. And they both looked so darn dynamic! I very strongly considered having both of them join together, which would have been the sensible thing, but in the end I decided for something more dramatic. I chose Hawkwoman instead of her husband in order to give Shayera a chance to shine. I wanted to give the girl students another character to possibly enjoy without her being possibly overshadowed by her husband. So as I had supplanted Hal with John, I decided to supplant Katar with Shayera. Hawkwoman became the third new member of the group in "my" continuity.

That gave me ten members. Ten characters to play with. I thought it lent itself to all sorts of variations and mixes. This roll call corresponded roughly to the JLA of the very early 1970s, right before Len Wein took over as writer. So that meant I could rewrite some of my favorite stories.

In order to introduce all the characters to the audience for the first four issues I used static roll call pages that did not change in order or appearance. Then when there was an issue without one of the members present, I could mark "absent" in their profile.
sg
I decided to use the members' names as is, and only add the definition of what their names meant in their profiles, underneath their English names. So, for example, Aquaman became "A-ku-a-man, mizu no otoko." I also decided that in this international age, and as an American living in a foreign country, I just did not feel it was appropriate to call The World's Greatest Super-Heroes the Justice League of America. They were sworn to protect the entire planet, right? This was also around the time when the actual comic book had dropped the "of America," as well (although they quickly reintroduced it). With another nod to continuity, however, I decided to keep the phrase "of America" in the name of the Justice Society. It seemed natural that a group that had formed in the era of World War Two would incorporate USA into its name.

And all that left for me was a translation of "Justice League." Think about it: a league by definition is an association or alliance. A "Justice Alliance" just doesn't sound right, though, right? So after talking to one of my friends and explaining "the pitch," he came up with the translation, "Seigi no Nakama." Seigi is the Japanese word for Justice. Nakama is the word for friend or partner. (No is the possessive adjective in Japanese; the equivalent of an apostrophe s in English.)
sg
I printed the stories in black and white and handed them out to whoever wanted a copy. Then I colored one copy with colored pencils (on better paper) and saved it in the Community Center library. The scans that accompany this article are mostly from these colored copies, which I (eventually) managed to reacquire after I left.

As for my first issue, it was called "The Reign of The Queen Bee" and it appeared in December, 1990. I don't know why I picked Queen Bee to use in my first story; I think it must have been because I had a book on bees to use as a reference. I didn't use any of her comic book stories as a reference for this story, either; except for the scene where a bee flies into Superman's ear that I swiped from JLA #131, the whole issue was all mine.

And it was pretty bad. The art was haphazard, the lettering was hard to read (in both languages!), and the page layouts were confusing. So what did I do next? For some reason I can't begin to understand, I decided to adapt the stories that appeared in the Pocket Books JLA collection, namely JLA #s 118, 119, and 130. This was an especially odd choice since these stories very prominently featured the Atom, Hawkman, Red Tornado, and the Elongated Man...none of who were in "my" Justice League! I cut the pages up, changed Hawkman to Hawkwoman, cut out the Atom, changed Red to J'onn, and basically did a horrible job. The least said about these two issues the better.

I tried one more original story, this time based on JLA #12, the debut of Dr. Light. Except for an odd change of which heroes switch identities to fool him, this story made the transition to my universe pretty well. My lettering and layouts were getting better, but I was basically ready to throw up my hands and admit defeat for this failed experiment.

However, somehow, in spite of myself, I had managed to do something right. I had a handful of students who actually *liked* these characters and wanted to read more about them! Believe it or not, I had somehow managed to not be totally awful.
sg
So I reexamined what I was doing to try to come up with an improvement. I had to give sufficient space to the pictures, the English, and the translation. I think that what Keith Giffen was doing in Legion at about this time had an effect on me, because I settled on a two (sometimes three) tier format with the English in a bolder, lettering style (but not all in caps, which the kids found hard to read) with the pronunciation written above that in a much smaller font, and the translation under the box kind of like subtitles.

I also made roll call "panels" for the members that I could rearrange in the order which the characters appeared in the story. And if a certain member didn't appear at all, I simply took that panel out. And I added panels for the bad guys and guest-stars so the kids could get a quick introduction before the action started.

I can still remember the first time I worked in this format: both because I was putting my heart and soul into it, hoping the kids would like it, and because my newborn daughter was asleep in the same room while I inked the Amazon forest.

Needless to say, I was more satisfied with the results. The boys (and a few girls) liked this version more, so I decided to keep creating them. This is the era I consider my "golden age." After Dr. Light made his repeat appearance I had my first two-parter with the Time Lord. He appears at the Star City Museum and when the League attempts to stop him, he sends them back to the Jurassic age. (Yes, dinosaurs were all the rage in 1992).
sg
In the next school year I had Kanjar Ro and Despero kidnap the Earth members and draft them into participating at the Space Olympics. Following this was a story sporting my all-time favorite cover, "Nothing Beats the Royal Flush Gang." This guest-starred Hawkman and the Elongated Man. The next issue, "The Fingers of Felix Faust," guest-starred Zatanna. I was already thinking about adding new members, and I wanted the audience to know some of the possibilities. In the next year I produced adaptations of my two all-time favorite JLA stories, #s 111 and 112, featuring "War With The One-Man Justice League."

With my thirteenth issue, however, I started to lose my way. I had one
issue where all the members took a tour of my universe looking for new members, and although I can see what I was trying to do (expand my universe) I can better see what I did: introduce too many concepts and characters too quickly. Then, I followed this yawn-fest with my "origin" issue, "The Story of the Justice League" where I basically had a history lesson of my universe. I know I wanted to (again) expand my universe and increase the depth of these characters, but the overall effect was not good. After these I wrote a story where the main characters were asleep!!

Yep, I had Dr. Destiny put the good guys to sleep; I showed the nightmares the members were having and the efforts by characters like Robin and Aqualad to wake up their friends. It was a huge undertaking but not very good storytelling. I could tell the kids were not happy with the stories, and I was not happy with the way they had turned out. I nearly quit right there, with issue sixteen being my last.

Something inside me, however, didn't want to end on such an off-note...with an issue that didn't even feature the Justice League on its own cover (it featured the Teen Titans). So for the next school year I committed myself to one or perhaps two stories. I reexamined the original idea to adapt existing comic book stories to my universe. Eventually I picked the stories where the Super Friends fought Chronos (SF #22) and where the JLA fought Eclipso (JLA #109). Thinking that one or the other would be the last story I did, I featured all the members in both. One appeared in late 1996 and the other in early 1997.
sg
And then another funny thing happened: using all the members, in these "simpler" one-issue stories, the kids were drawn to the characters again! With my pride restored, I decided to commit to another few adventures, and to the story I had wanted to do for awhile but had kept putting off: I started planning my own JL-JSA crossover, for issues 21 and 22. I did another Super Friends story (substituting Psycho Pirate for the Monocle of SF #40, an issue that actually had a LOC from me on its letter page) and a cute little throwaway tale featuring the Weather Wizard. And then I had my "Crisis On Earth Two" two-parter.

I guess I hadn't learned my lesson with the New Members-Origin-Dr.Destiny-Teen Titans debacle, because these two issues bombed. Like many "classic" JLA-JSA team-ups before mine, too many characters and too many tangents did not naturally add up to excitement. It had its moments, but it was top heavy and (again!) I tried to introduce too many concepts and characters in too short of a span.

I knew what had to be done. (I'm slow but I'm not stupid!) I planned two stories with the League broken up into two equal groups, fighting the Scarecrow (from SF #32) and Felix Faust again (from JLA #103). This got the kids (and me!) psyched for what I was finally ready to do: add Red Tornado.

See, I had done my "Crisis" story based on JLA #s 100-102 (just without the Seven Soldiers, what, do you think I'm crazy?). This is the story where Red Tornado sacrifices himself to save his friends but actually sends himself to Earth One, where he ends up joining the JLA. I always liked Red Tornado and thought the kids would like him, too. So I simplified JLA #139 ("The Ice Age Cometh") and then coupled it with JLA #105 (Red's initial induction) with JLA #146 (Red's reappearance). I may
be biased, but I consider this two-parter the best of the series. I was in the middle of some type of renaissance, as I followed up these stories with two more smaller group issues, the return of Kanjar Ro (JLA #120-121 but without Adam Strange) and then various individual stories explaining why members had missed the previous adventure.

I was definitely on a roll with these comics. Unfortunately, I was not on a roll with my bosses. They kept making stupid administrative mistakes and I was getting more and more frustrated dealing with them. After more than ten years at my job I kind of thought I knew a thing or five about the best way to do international relations; I asked to be promoted (I was still considered a "contract employee") and I asked for more work responsibilities.

Keeping the overall work problems separate from the comic universe, I planned on doing a Christmas tale. The first one I chose was based on JLA #152, the story that introduced Traya as Red Tornado's "daughter." I thought she made a good supporting character for Red and I liked the story and characters in general. To keep Superman from appearing too much, however, I substituted Martian Manhunter for him in my version.

This was also because the second Christmas story I planned to do was
based on JLA #110, and in that story there was a plot involving a red-sun that I absolutely needed Superman for. Unfortunately, as I was working on this story it became painfully clear to me that my time in Aya was coming to an end. I no longer wanted to be treated as a second-class employee, and faced with the prospect of playing with kindergarten children well into my forties, I decided to return to the States. Although it pained me to do so, I decided that I had no choice but to resign.
sg
Before it got to that, however, I had to finish my series right. First off, I had to do a sequel to my Lord of Time story from way back in 1992. In the end of issue seven, the Time Lord escaped back into time and the Justice League couldn't follow him. He was the only villain the League hadn't ever caught, and I needed to resolve that. So I plotted a story based loosely on JLA # 159-160, substituting the League for those JSA members.
sg
Then it was simply left for me to end the series. I picked Dr. Light as the final bad guy. He had been featured twice already in what I believed were the first "good" issues of my series, so it made sense to me to use him one last time. I decided to combine the two really good Dr. Light JLA appearances (JLA #122 and #149) into one mega-story. I also added the resignation of Hawkman and Hawkwoman into the mix to warrant the title, "Going Home."
sg
In this story, the Hawks basically told the audience the reasons that I was leaving: "Our boss changed recently. He has no idea how to do international relations. We tried to talk to him, but it's hopeless. We must leave. There is no new challenge in the job. But don't get us wrong! We would stay if we could. But we can't." I ended the story with the most emotional series of good-byes I could think of: Shayera and Diana and Katar-Ollie, plus Red Tornado thanking both of them for their emotional support. I remember tearing up a few times as I wrote/drew these pages, knowing that I would have to be saying these same things very soon.

Issue thirty-one was my last issue. I made extra copies and handed it off to all of my students, both kids and adults. And a few months later, in Spring 2001, I left Japan and returned to the USA. I had worked in Aya for fourteen years, and had been making comics there for ten.

Looking over the series now I see mostly my mistakes. I tried to steal from the best, such as Gil Kane, Dave Cockrum, and Dick Dillin, but often I just messed things up. I'm especially embarrassed about my earliest work; I almost didn't scan any of that. Yet I can also see the care and time I took to make these 31 issues. So even if I failed in general, I do believe I did the best I could under the time constraints and other problems. I'm basically proud of my efforts.
sg
Now that the series is over, I sometimes think I'd like to revisit it. I remember that back in 1999 or so when I toyed with the idea of staying in Aya permanently, I halfheartedly planned out the series through issue 50 (current issue would have been at about 26). I know I was going to add Zatanna for sure. I know I was going to do that JLA #110 Christmas story (substituting the Flash for Red Tornado and Wonder Woman or Aquaman for Batman). Other stories I know I had considered were where Aquaman saves everyone (SF #24), Puppets of the Overlord (SF #25), the Atlantis Kidnapping (SF #27), the Super Friends fight monsters (SF #28), and the three appearances of the Menagerie Man (SF #s 6, 19, and 33). Plus I had wanted to do another, better JSA team-up. (sigh) These stories exist now only in my imagination.

Two final things about my Seigi No Nakama series. A year after I returned to the States, Cartoon Network decided to create an animated version of the JLA. As many of you probably noticed already, the characters they eventually ended up using resemble very closely the characters I had decided were the best! When I first saw those seven animated JLAers my mouth nearly dropped to the floor. So I guess my decisions in the winter of 1990 were pretty good, after all! They even dropped the words "of America" from the group name!!

And just last month, in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold,
Batman is shown defeating Felix Faust in a scene I wrote nearly seven years ago! I know people will find this hard to believe, but I basically wrote the same scene for when Batman, the Atom, and Aquaman took down The Time Lord in issue 30. The Time Lord never paid much attention to who was who in the Justice League, so after all the other members were stymied by his force field and weapons, Batman appears on the scene and stops him, seemingly on his own. I'm presenting the whole series here for your enjoyment so that you will believe me. If you saw the cartoon I'm referring to, you'll have to admit that the scene is very, very similar. (And I know, I stole that punch scene out of a Gil Kane comic. I only stole from the best, I swear!).


I am always thinking of the best way to scan all these issues and post them somewhere on the Internet, but so far I haven't taken the time or effort to do it. Any suggestions as to how or where I should post them?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

George Rears - 1975

sg George Rears - I remember the day as clear as can be...

It's a bright sunny summer day, and I am on my bike riding through the park past a tiny stream. I'm on my way to a store with some friends to buy some modeling kits.

I remember carrying a Batman book which I stopped to read along the way. I can clearly picture Batman ducking from Catwoman's Cat-o-nine tails coming at Batman from the right hand side. I would later find out (or so I thought) that this issue was a return to the classic Catwoman costume, one of the last remaining artifacts from the 1960's TV show discarded. I can even hear "Old Days" by Chicago in the background!

Except one problem.

It never happened.

As I've gotten older, I realized my goal of owning every comic book ever was probably never going to happen. Heck, I'll probably never own all the appearances of the Justice League. What I have instead concentrated on is finding comics I remember owning as a kid. The ones that made me addicted to 32 pages of newsprint (plus covers!).

I've re-acquired many of the books I had long ago lost including many of the Flash and Justice League books that were my favorites. I even started to collect comics by months, trying to buy as many books I could find that came out during key months of my childhood. I have since tried to pick up other books that I have fond memories of, such as the so-called 12 Labors of Wonder Woman which features guest stars from the Justice League in a series of stories that ran almost two years from 1974 to 1975.

sgAs I looked back at books that I wanted, I really needed to get this Batman comic. I still have a bike, and I have just about every Chicago song on CD, but I didn't have this Batman issue. If I really did want to recreate my childhood, well, I was going to need this book!

I recently went back to the town I grew up in, and in doing some research prior to visiting, I noticed something really weird. While looking over Google Earth, I couldn't find this park/bike path, or any evidence that existed...and where I thought it should be, there were houses that looked like they had been there at least 70 years (no, I'm not that old). Flash forward to a few months ago at a comic show, and I noticed I couldn't find this Batman book. Anywhere.

sgSo...now I'm curious. Does this book exist? Well... not really. Extensive searching of the Internet (or least 10 minutes of scanning comic covers on-line) have revealed that the book I'm picturing is a cross between the Catwoman appearance in Batman #266 (August 1975), the layout of the cover of Batman #274 (April 1976) and the awful coloring of Batman #283 (January 1977). Unless someone else can Identify a copy of a Batman book with a purple cover, featuring Catwoman attacking Batman from the right hand side!

So why do I have this crazy memory? The best I can figure is that in order to save disk space, my brain compressed some memories, combining various incidents to into one, single event which never happened. It feels right, but when examined up close, it fails inspection. I'll never find this book, and the park was never there- although there was another one near my house, which was kind of similar. I hope I never have to tell this story in court. Too many holes.

I have a few other memories like these, mostly centered around Christmas, remembering different relatives attending different years, receiving toys that wouldn't have been out in the years that I remember them, etc. The Batman one, I hope is the only "false" memory about comics. I'd hate to think that the book I always thought was my first off the rack purchase (Flash #228) was really my second purchase, after "Baby Snoots".

So...the park doesn't exist. The book doesn't exist. The good news is that the song "Old Days" was released in April, 1975, right around the time of the first of these books. I could very well have been riding my bike, while hearing that song. Perhaps I will find this book someday...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Crisis on Earth-Conscience - 1985

sg
Rob Kelly - Maybe it was Vince's story just previous that got me thinking about this story, which is a less than cheery one concerning my love of comics.

Most of the stories I've related here have been good, if not nearly mythologically glorious, stories about my love of comics. But of course anyone who read comics as a kid before the mid-90s has at least one memory when they were made to feel really, really bad because of their hobby, and for whatever reason this one popped back into my head, having escaped a deep, dark corner of my mind where unpleasant memories reside.

In 1985, I started attending high school. Normally that's terrifying enough, but as an avid comic book reader, I felt like I had an extra level of terror--having to keep my #1 interest totally, completely secret, lest I be discovered to be Cherry Hill East's #1 Nerd, and be in for four straight years of torment.

Part of the benefit of going to a new school of course is most people don't know you, so you can present to them whatever image you'd like to project. And for the most part, I was able to just keep my head down and mouth shut, so instead of gaining a reputation for being a nerd, I went pretty much unnoticed. Which is what I wanted.

Except that anonymity disappeared when I was on the school bus. Since the bus of course picked up kids from my neighborhood, they knew me, and continued to carry all the petty and mean hostilities with them to the new school.

Case in point, there was one particular kid--let's call him Dickie Dickerson--who seemed to make it his goal in life to torment me. I would sit near the front, and he would yell out insults at me from the back, mostly about my comic book collection (I don't even remember how he knew about that, probably info gathered from his pact with Satan).

Of course, I was mortified to have my comic book hobby be revealed to a bus full of kids, many of whom I didn't know (since our bus now picked up kids outside of our neighborhood). I felt my closely contained secret would spread into the high school, and I'd be done for.

To make matters worse, I had made a new friend--let's call him Nerdy Nerderson--who had just started reading comics, and, like anyone who has just discovered something they love--could not stop talking about them, even on the bus!

As I as tried to just keep my head down and not develop an ulcer, here was this kid talking out loud, for all to hear, about the newest Batman and Daredevil and who is this Martian Manhunter guy...

I wanted to die.

One day, I got back on the bus, there was only one kid on before me--Dickie Dickerson. I tried not to make eye contact and sat in my seat, knowing what was coming.

"Hey Bob," his whiny, mean little voice carried up the bus towards me. "Do you collect comics?"

He knew the answer to this, he just wanted torment me. I waited for a moment, and said: "No."

I have never quite forgiven myself for this moment.

Sure, I was just a kid and it I was just trying to make a Faustian bargain where, maybe if I gave the correct answer, Dickie would leave me alone.

But I knew he wouldn't. And I felt like I should've, in that moment, turned around and said "Yes I do, you stupid little f**k. Jealous I can read?"

But I didn't--I caved. And instead of being proud over the thing that was the single most important thing in my life, I threw my comics under the metaphorical bus (while being on a bus--oh, the irony!) just to make myself a little more palatable for this member of the Hitler Youth, Cherry Hill Chapter.


Two thoughts occur to me as I write all this out--first, I have to thank Hollywood, whose desire for blockbuster tentpole franchises have made Batman, Spider-Man, Hellboy, and The X-Men movie stars, and now comics reading has escaped the horrible little ghetto they occupied for so long.

Also, while we don't have kids of our own, they are all around--various nephews, nieces, and children of friends. And I tell everyone of these kids when its appropriate that if you find something you really like--whether it be Star Wars, Legos, comics, anything--then enjoy it to the fullest, and never, never ever be ashamed of it.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Vincent Bartilucci - 1988

sg Vincent Bartilucci - Here's another one for the "Hey, Young Adults! Comics!" file.

It's 1988 and I'm in the midst of my Dance Club Years. I live on Long Island which has about a million of these places. Many of them are former discos that have traded in their Donna Summer and Bee Gees records for Depeche Mode and Bow Wow Wow singles. They've got names like Spit, Spize, The Loop, Thrush, and Paris NY. Y'know, cool 80's type names.

My friends and I spend most of our nights at these establishments because, well, that's where the girls are. Sure, we enjoy hanging out together. And we all dig the music they play in the clubs. But we could just congregate in a parking lot with a boom-box and save ourselves a cover charge, right? Why don't we? The girls!

At least, that's the allure of clubbing for me. Y'see, I've uncovered a profound, life-altering truth about the fundamental nature of the universe--girls who frequent dance clubs like to dance. So important is this notion that I think it bears repeating. Girls who frequent dance clubs like to dance.

And I'm a really good dancer.

You don't have to take my word for it. Ask anyone. I mean, I get compliments from complete strangers, no foolin'. So, when my friends and I get to a club, I hit the floor immediately and, before you know it, I'm dancing with some beautiful girl who doesn't realize how out of my league she really is. Suddenly she isn't paying attention to tall, dark, and handsome nursing his beer over in the corner. She's paying attention to me. New Wave music, Vinnie's great leveler!

Anyway, my friends and I usually travel to and from the clubs together but occasionally we all take our own vehicles and meet up at our destination. That's why I'm driving home solo from a night at Spize as our story finally begins.

It's between two and three in the morning, and there is no one else on Hempstead Turnpike as my car runs out of gas. My car runs out of gas because I'm an idiot. It's another one of those profound truths--if your gas gauge works and you still run out of gas you're an idiot.

I knew I needed gas on the way to Spize. But I also needed money for the cover charge and to get a drink or two so I unwisely chose to push my luck. Now, I'm stuck on the 'Pike cursing a blue streak and trying to decide in which direction to walk to find the nearest gas station. I don't know what I'm going to do when I reach that nearest gas station,mind you. I have no gas can and there's only about two bucks in my wallet.

As I'm standing next to my car kicking myself for being such a dope, a pick-up truck passes by. I watch as it makes a u-turn up ahead, swings around to pass me again, and pulls over to stop three or four yards in front of me. The truck is hauling a couple of pieces of landscaping equipment in its cargo bed blocking the back windshield of the cab and preventing me from seeing how many occupants are inside. No one gets out of the truck for a few seconds giving me time to consider the possibilities. The occupant of the pick-up could very well be a Good Samaritan seeking to help a stranded motorist. And that'd be wonderful. But what if he's not a Good Samaritan? What if he's a jerk looking for trouble? Heck, what if he's two jerks?

And this is why the intro 'bout the dance clubs is important--I'm coming home from a New Wave club and I'm dressed accordingly. I've got on high boots, tight jeans, and a leather motorcycle jacket over a ripped t-shirt, all in shades of black. A silver cross dangles from my left ear and black eyeliner rings my eyes.

Yeah, I'm that guy.

I look, at best, kind of freaky and at worst...well, you know. It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that someone (or someones) might pull over to administer a beating to me just because of the way I look.

I weigh my options. All the dancing means I'm in the best shape of my life. But I'm still kind of a little guy and I know nothing about how to fight. It's shocking, really. Years of reading comic books have taught me nothing of any real value in the self-defense department. Except maybe to never turn my back on the Red Skull.

I decide that if more than one person gets out of the truck, I'll have to run for it.

The driver side door of the pick-up opens and a man gets out. He's tall, in his early thirties, and looks as if he probably wouldn't need any assistance beating me senseless, thank you very much. But I stand my ground, trying not to look frightened as I split my attention between the approaching man and the pick-up's passenger side door. I'm ready to bolt if I see the passenger door open.

He must sense my unease because he looks me right in the eye and smiles a broad, genuinely friendly smile that completely disarms me. He asks me what's wrong with my car and I sheepishly admit that I was dumb enough to let it run out of gas. He walks back to his truck and pulls a gas can out of the cargo area. Without a word, he empties the gas can into my tank then returns it to his pick-up.

I reach into my back pocket and pull out my wallet. Luckily, pick-up truck guy doesn't call my bluff. Instead, he hands me a little booklet, wider than it is tall. "Just promise me you'll read this," he says.

I thank him and promise to read the booklet. He gets into his pick-up truck and I get into my car, tossing the booklet onto the passenger seat in the process. He waits there to make sure that my car starts and, when it does, he drives off. I drive home, wash my face, brush my teeth, and hit the sack.

A couple of days later, I remember my promise to pick-up truck guy. I retrieve the booklet from under the passenger seat of my car where it has fallen only to discover that it's a comic book. A weird, poorly drawn, vaguely sinister looking comic book, but a comic book nonetheless.

And, would you look at that, it says I'm going to Hell! Fun!

The booklet is just one of hundreds of cartoon tracts published by Jack Chick and his company, Chick Publications. But I don't know that yet. All I know is that a complete stranger helped me out of a jam and all he asked in return was that I read a comic book.

So, I read it. It's an amazingly unsettling experience. The gist of this little cartoon screed it is that the Roman Catholic Church is actively working to pervert the true teachings of Christ. Therefore, all who call themselves Catholics and follow the teachings of Holy Mother Church are destined for Hell. Been a good person? Doesn't matter, you're going to Hell. Fed the hungry and clothed the naked? That's nice--you’re still going to Hell. Selflessly championed the cause of every single downtrodden segment of society? You guessed it, Hell!

I'm 21, just shy of 22 and I've read comic books my whole life. Comic stories have made me laugh, cry, cheer, rant, and hide shivering under my blankets. But I don't think I truly understood the power of graphic story-telling until reading this tract. The art is amateurish and the "story" is insane. But my skin is crawling and I've got a really sour taste in my mouth. All thanks to this little comic book.

I finish the comic--I promised, after all-- and toss it in the trash. But the whole incident plays on my mind for days. The more I think about it the more questions I've got. Did pick-up truck guy give me that tract because he saw the rosary beads hanging from my rear view mirror? Or did he give it to me because of the way I was dressed and it was just a "happy" coincidence that I was a follower of the religion it denounced? Is that how he spends his days, handing out packets of fear and intolerance disguised as crappy little comic books to unsuspecting people? And why do I feel guilty for having thrown the wretched thing out?

Eventually my skins stops crawling and I lose the bad after taste. But that comic book still exerts some crazy power over me because...

It's 2008 and I'm writing up a story for Rob Kelly's Hey, Kids, Comics! Site. It's about a little cartoon tract published by Chick Publications. I read it only once twenty years ago and I don't remember the title. I visit the Chick Publications web-site to try to find the title and maybe reread it to give my memory a little goose. I don't find the info I'm looking for because I only get through a few of the things before I have to leave the site.

Y'see, my skin is crawling and I've got a really sour taste in my mouth.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pete Doree - 1974

Pete Doree - In the summer of 1974, my Mum & Dad took me and my irksome younger brother on holiday to Somerset, a beautiful part of the English countryside that was completely wasted on my 10 year old, comic loving self.

We were staying at some ropey caravan park with possibly the scummiest amenities you've ever seen, but I'd eyeballed the newsagents on the way in, so, the second we parked up, I dragged my Mum over there, eager to see what goodies they had.


So it was, that in that campsite papershop, I came across
The Scariest Comic I'd Ever Seen!

I don't know if at that point I'd read any of Marvel's then new black & white line. I don't think so. My all time favourite, Marvel Preview, was still a way off, so this particular issue may've been my first experience of that classic, much underrated line. And here it is:
sg
Try being a 10 year old Marvel maniac and NOT wanting this book the second you see it. I mean, up in the left hand corner, there's The Zombie! Reading his own mag!

Thing is, being a magazine, it must have been up on the top shelf with all those 'True Crime' mags and (hem hem) 'adult' periodicals. So I must have asked my Mum to get it down for me.


What I do remember is that, as soon as I saw it, Mum wasn't impressed. She told me it looked too scary, I wouldn't like it, why not choose something else.

But I wouldn't be swayed. I'd read Tomb Of Dracula where the old vampire is speared on that spiked fence, I'd read Werewolf By Night & Frankenstein. I could easily handle Zombies.

Unfortunately for me,
Tales Of The Zombie 7 was drawn by Alfredo Alcala.

Understand, these days, as an artist or just as a fan, I consider Alcala as nothing less than an absolute genius, particularly in the field of horror. But in those days? I hated him. He was on my (and my friends) list of all time most loathed artists, along with Frank Robbins & Carmine Infantino. (Yeah, I've changed my mind about them too, obviously.) His stuff always looked like someone had dipped it in heavy black tar.

Remember when Marvel would sucker you by letting someone like Gil Kane do a cover, so you'd buy the book, only to discover that Gil wasn't doing the inside, but it was some hack like Don Heck or Frank Springer?! That's much I hated Alfredo Alcala.

And no, I didn't check the inside of
Tales Of The Zombie. If I had, I might've been spared a couple of months of nightmares.

So, I bought the thing, over my Mum's objections, and hurried back to our caravan to read it.


Opening the book up, I discovered not only Pablo Marcos (yet another artist I hated) but the dreaded Alcala. But, I'd spent my hard earned pocket money on this thing, so I was damn well gonna read it.


This particular issue features a story by Doug Moench called "The Blood-Testament of Brian Collier". It's basically an Agatha Christie type drawing-room murder mystery with some spectacularly grisly deaths, made all the more gruesome by Alcala's finely detailed, blacker than black artwork.


The Zombie himself only appears nominally, watching the proceedings from an outside window, and turning up at the denouement to wreak vengeance on the guilty parties in typically bloody fashion.


But it was one particular scene that haunted me, a scene where an old woman is murdered while looking through the eyehole's in a painting:

sg
The second I saw that, I almost lost my lunch. Suddenly, this comic wasn't fun anymore. We'd gone beyond harmless, creepy chills into realistic, sadistic horror. I put the comic down and never went back to it. For the rest of the holiday, I avoided it's gaze, hiding it under clothes, keeping it away from my other, safe, comics. Not gazing into the abyss, in case it gazed back. And when we went home, I made sure that Tales of the Zombie didn't come with us, made sure it got 'accidentally' left behind.

I couldn't tell my Mum, of course, that would be like admitting I was wrong. And I'd be forced to admit I was still a child after all, and not big and brave like grown ups.
But she knew. Mum's always know, and they never tell you they know.

This year, after having this story stuck in my head for over 30 years, I finally plucked up the courage to buy Essential Tales Of The Zombie, reprinting '"The Blood Testament of Brian Collier", and no, of course it doesn't scare me anymore.

But, those four panels do still give me the memory of fear, a tiny twinge of nausea, as my 10 year self recoils from The Scariest Comic I've Ever Read!!!

Wherever Alfredo Alcala is, I hope he's proud of himself.