Friday, May 29, 2009

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents in the 80s Part 1: The JC/Texas/Red Circle Days of Thunder

Like I promised last week, I'm back with a huge (I'm talkin' gi-normous!) post on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents of the 1980s. It's so big, in fact, that it's gonna wind up being two posts (at least--I keep finding more stuff to write about! Halp!), so this week Ol' Groove is gonna look at the early part of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents revival (JC Comics, Texas/Noble, and Red Circle/Archie Adventure), next week will cover the rest of the 80s (Deluxe and Solson, plus a surprise or two, perhaps...). Why am I tellin' ya all of this? You're intelligent--you'll figure it out! Onward!!

In late 1981/Early 1982, the Silver Age super-team created by Wally Wood and company started on the comeback trail. Throughout the 70s, fans pined away for the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, wishing someone, somehow would bring Dynamo, No-Man, Rave
n, Lightning and the rest back in new adventures. It almost happened in the late 70s, when Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter tried getting the publishing rights to the Agents, but found them mired in legal questions pertaining to their ownership. When the Agents did finally make their triumphant return, those same legal questions would plague them in ways worse than the Warlord, Dynavac, Demo, or Red Star ever could. Be that as it may, ad-man/uber-fan John Carbonaro licensed and eventually bought the rights (murky as said rights might have been--and remain to this day!) from original T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents publisher Tower Comics. His first T.A. project JCP Featuring T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents set comicbook fandom abuzz. Pulling together many of fandom's top creators, guys like Chris Adames, Lou Manna, Mark Texeira, and Pat Gabriele, JCP Featuring T.A. was a black and white, magazine-sized comicbook featuring not only a brand new "preview story" featuring almost all of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents back in action, but reprints from the MLJ/Archie/Mighty/Red Circle line of comics, namely the Fly (by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) and the Black Hood (by Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, and Gray Morrow). JCP Featuring T.A. was meant to be a sampler of what we could expect JC Comics to publish in their planned color comicbook line.

Somewhere along the way, Carbonaro went from licensing the MLJ/Archie/Mighty/Red Circle for his own publishing company, to partnering with Archie to bring back their Red Circle imprint, and all of the super-heroes from the MLJ/Archie/Mighty/Red Circle addition to publishing the new adventures of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Carbonaro would edit the Red Circle line while Archie "silently" helped him publish the Agents under his JC imprint. Carbonaro's number one priority was the Agents, while the Archie big-wigs, naturally, were more concerned about getting Red Circle up and running. That's where the problems really began. (I warned you this was complicated stuff!)

Carbonaro planned for a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents/Mighty Crusader crossover to help create bigger buzz for both companies' projects. The crossover was written and, according to Carbonaro, handed over to Rich Buckler (who had taken over as editor of the Red Circle line so Carbonaro could concentrate on the Agents), but the powers-that-were at Archie wanted Buckler to skip the crossover because, again, according to Carbonaro, he was already too far behind deadline-wise with the regular Red Circle books. A crossover did happen, though--with Noble Comics' Justice Machine. In the legendary Justice Machine Annual #1, a Texas-based fanzine publishing company called Texas Comics got the rights to Noble Comics publisher Mike Gustovich's Justice Machine and approached Carbonaro with their idea of doing a crossover between Justice Machine and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Carbonaro agreed that it sounded like a good idea and gave Texas the go-ahead. And as cool and important as that story might be (written by Bill Loebs with art by Bill Reinhold, Jeff Dee, and Bill Anderson), it was eclipsed by the back-up story by a new guy by the name of Bill Willingham. A little thing he called the Elementals, which went on to become one of the most popular titles of the 80s.

Still, in all of this confusion, Carbonaro and his associates were able to complete three issues of the new T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and three issues of Hall of Fame before Archie's priorities shifted completely to Red Circle, leaving Carbonaro and company high and dry. But wait, I said three issues of T.A., but only two were published, right? Well, in spite of all the changes in Archie's handling their end of the T.A. deal, Carbonaro kept a decent relationship going with them. When Blue Ribbon Comics #12 looked like it was going to miss its deadline, Carbonaro worked out a deal with the Archie folks to let them publish the completed-but-abandoned third T.A. story--the story that would have been T.A. #3.

Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the JC/Texas/Red Circle era of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents produced some excellent comics. Carbonaro had a definite vision for the Agents, staying faithful to the Tower version while updating the strip for a new decade. He avoided "re-imagining" the Agents, bringing back the "real" characters fandom had fallen in love with back in the 1960s. Keeping the costumes, powers and characterizations intact allowed Silver Age fans to enjoy the JC take on the Agents, while fun stories and exciting art grabbed new fans and reeled them in. His choice of artists (especially Texeira, Manna, and Blyberg--oh, and that dude named Ditko wasn' t bad, either...) were as good as anyone working at Marvel or DC at the time, and perfectly captured, then updated, the Wally Wood style. If the Archie connection had stayed strong, and Carbonaro and his compatriots had been allowed to strut their stuff for another three or so issues, JC Comics' T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents could have been a huge hit, rather than another great, short-lived comic in the annals of "what might have been".

Next week: The Deluxe and Solson Days of Thunder

Friday, May 22, 2009

Those Awesome Fan Mags: Amazing Heroes

Remember Amazing Heroes? That twice-monthly, comicbook-sized (more often than not running 100+ pages), professional-quality fan magazine that ran from 1981-1992? I sure do. It was kind of the TV Guide of comics. As I recall, it was pretty much intended to be a lighter, more superhero friendly antidote to publisher Fantagraphics' heavy, scholarly-minded (read: pretentious) The Comics Journal. At first, Gary Groth (Fantagraphics' publisher) kept it a bit of a secret that the same publisher was responsible for both TCJ and AH, and published AH as "Redbeard, Inc.", but eventually the cat came out of the bag, and nobody really cared, anyway.

Suffice to say that Amazing Heroes (affectionately referred to as AH), was a fun mag. Each issue listed all the comics that were to be published over the next two weeks ("Coming Distractions"), had great feature stories and/or interviews with/on popular writers, artists, and comics, loads of reviews ("Comics in Review") and sported a lively letters page--which actually ran several pages ("Amazing Readers"). Many issues reprinted popular comic strips like Star Hawks and Star Wars, as well as running sometimes funny "editorial cartoons" poking fun at various comics characters and creators. One of the best features of AH was its "Hero Histories" in which we'd get an exhaustive overview of anything from X-Men or Teen Titans to Enemy Ace or even Brother Power, the Geek. Best of all, each issue was chock full of art, including original pieces by both pros and up-and-coming fan artists. Oh, and AH's covers simply screamed "buy me!" more often than not.

AH's most popular feature, by far, was its "Preview Issues" in which we'd get info about every comic to be published for whatever year the Preview Issue was published for. It was a really cool and handy resource, as the entries were run in alphabetical order making it easy to find and read the scoop on your favorite titles first. The "Preview Issues" were so popular, in fact, that they were eventually spun off into their own mag, appropriately titled Amazing Heroes Preview Special.

Lighter than TCJ, but much more substantial than every issue of Wizard piled one on top of the other, AH filled an important niche and did so with tons of class. But then, what else would one expect from a mag edited by guys like Mark Waid and Dave Olbrich?

Sorry about the relatively short post for this week, but between getting back on track from my son's wedding last weekend and preparing for my daughter and son-in-law's college graduation this coming weekend, Ol' Groove is in a bit of a pinch for time. Never fear, though, for next week I'll be back with a huge post on the T.H.U.N.D.E.R Agents in the 1980s. Or something else if I don't get that monster-post finished. Either way, it'll be good stuff, I promise!

Friday, May 15, 2009

To Be "S'Pacific": Pacific Comics' Anthologies from Bruce Jones Associates

Bruce Jones and April Campbell *. In the 80s, they became perhaps my favorite editors on the strength of the magnificent anthology titles they produced/packaged/edited for Pacific Comics: Twisted Tales, Alien Worlds, and the magnificent, single-issue of Pathways to Fantasy**. Those mags were intended to be--and were quite worthy-- modern-day heirs to the great EC line of comics of the 1950s. They were also very much a product of their times, printed on "Baxter" paper (that crisp, white, low-gloss paper that holds up so well to the ravages of time) in full-process color (by masters like Joe Chiodo and Steve Oliff) with painted covers. "R" rated (a "Recommended for Mature Readers" lable was added to the covers with issue #6) with plenty of blood, nudity, and profanity (sometimes, admittedly, of the titillating, unnecessary sort). In fact, it was kind of like taking Marvel's Epic Illustrated mag, making it comicbook size, and splitting it into three comics...with much better writing, since Jones, himself, handled most of the writing chores. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise, Bruce Jones was a master of the short-comicbook story format. (I'll soon be posting some of his Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, and Warren work over on Diversions of the Groovy Kind for proof of that.) Don't forget that Campbell helped plot, edit, and contributed a few stories of her own, as well.

(*aka April Campbell Jones--she and Bruce married in 1984.) (**Yeah, they did other cool stuff for Pacific, like Somerset Holmes and Silverheels, and yeah, they continued producing awesome anthologies for Eclipse after Pacific's demise. I'll cover all of that--as well as profiles on both Bruce and April--in future posts, promise!)

They made a great team and were able to lure some of the very best artists in the biz to work on their mags. For example, during their horror anthology Twisted Tales' eight issue run at Pacific (Fall 1982-Spring 1984), they were able to get the best artists from Marvel, DC, indies, ground-level, undergrounds--everyone wanted to play in Bruce and April's sandbox. Like "who?", you ask? Heck, why tell you when I can show you! Check out the credits on these splash pages--a veritable "who's who" of 80s comicbook artists...

Not only were they able to get stunning work out of the best artists of the period, but Jones and Campbell managed to snare quite a find to help with the writing. I'm guessing you've heard of...William F. Nolan? I'm not making this up. Check it out:

They didn't let up on finding the best when getting artists for the sci-fi-centric Alien Worlds, either. AW ran for seven issues (Winter 1982-Spring 1984) under the Pacific banner, and it was a joy to look at. Wasn't a bad read, either! Take a look...

Yep, that last piece is from a rare Roy G. Krenkel story, perhaps even his last, since he passed away in 1983.

And finally, what could have been the best anthology in the lot, Pathways to Fantasy (Summer 1984). Only one issue--but what an issue! Try not to drool on your keyboard!

Magnificent art. Great writing. Thought provoking. Sexy. Gut churning. Dream/nightmare inducing. It's no wonder Eclipse Comics snatched Bruce Campbell Associates up to continue Twisted Tales and Alien Worlds after Pacific's demise. And just how well did that work out? Stay tuned! Meantime, have you got any memories of Twisted Tales, Alien Worlds, or Pathways to Fantasy you'd like to share? Favorite stories? Post a comment!
Note to "The Man": All images are presumed copyright by the respective copyright holders and are presented here as fair use under applicable laws, man! If you hold the copyright to a work I've posted and would like me to remove it, just drop me an e-mail and it's gone, baby, gone.

All other commentary and insanity copyright GroovyAge, Ltd.

As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1980s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!