Friday, April 24, 2009

Starslayer: He Might've Slayed 'Em, But the Back-ups Were the Stars

Pacific Comics made a huge splash in 1981. Bill and Steve Schanes had gone from a mail order company (which they started in 1971), to distributors, to art-portfolio publishers, to comicbook publishers at a pretty rapid clip. They seemed to know what they were doing, as when they decided to start their own line of color comicbooks (to be sold directly to Comics Shops--to whom they'd also distribute the comics they published, yep, yep), they started by inviting two extremely popular creators. The Schanes brothers were pals with Jack Kirby due to their generous habit of supplying the King of Comics with copies of the comics he was producing--since the publishers seemed to keep forgetting to do it themselves. As it happened, Kirby had worked up his version of Star Wars for another publisher, but Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers had never been picked up. The Schanes brothers grabbed it and Pacific Comics was off and running. Bill and Steve were also smart enough to know that, while Kirby was a legend, his star wasn't as bright as it had once been, and they needed a star who was blazing at that very moment.

Mike Grell had built up quite a following at DC Comics, rising up from back-up artist on Aquaman and Green Arrow, to fan-favorite on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, to mega-star on his own creation, Warlord (which just happens to be the subject of this weeks Famous First Fridays over at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, hint, hint!). The brothers from Pacific approached "Iron Mike" and hit pay-dirt once again. Grell, too, had created a new series that DC was to have published, but for the housecleaning that had happened over there in 1978, and they decided he would do it as a six-issue mini-series. As a preview of what was to come, Pacific published a portfolio starring Grell's Starslayer*: Log of the Jolly Roger prior to publishing the comic. The portfolio sold out and it looked like Pacific and Grell had a hit.

Grell reversed his Warlord premise of a modern man being sent into a savage world, by having a savage man (a Celtic barbarian named Torin Mac Quillon) sent to a Star Wars-inspired future. It was a cool premise (you can read the first issue on my pal Joe Bloke's blog), with Grell's trademark great characters and art, taut dialogue, and realistic characterization. It should have been a hit. But a funny thing happened...

Pacific didn't run many ads, which meant that they had room for longer stories--or standard-length stories plus a back-up feature. Most of Starslayer's first six issues had back-ups. First, there was something called The Rocketeer by a new kid (who'd been toiling in the cartoon industry) named Dave Stevens ran in issues 2 and 3. While fans were digging Grell's Starslayer, they were totally flipping out over The Rocketeer. Nearly half the letters in Starslayer were paens to Stevens and his genius. Even the letters that focused on Starslayer still found room to praise The Rocketeer. Instead of leaving The Rocketeer as a back-up in Starslayer (there were only three issues to go anyway, right?), Pacific decided to create an anthology title, Pacific Presents, and let Stevens' beautifully illustrated tale of 1930s era barnstormer Cliff Secord and his Bettie Page look-alike girlfriend headline it. There weren't many Rocketeer stories published (though the character did blow through, what?, three publishers?), but what was published was popular enough that Disney put it on the Silver Screen in 1991.

In Starslayer #5, Sergio Aragones' latest creation, an inept barbarian named Groo made his second appearance (his first had been in Eclipse Comics' Destroyer Duck #1) as he went his merrily destructive way on to his own title. Groo turned out to be a mega-hit, appearing under a variety of publishers and in hundreds of comics all the way into the 21st Century.

Grell finished his story of how Torin and his comrades saved the universe by destroying the earth (I told'ja it was a cool story!), then shifted his energies--and creations--to a new publisher, First Comics. Grell's time would be spent mostly on something completely different; a series about a soldier of fortune who poses as a children's book writer called Jon Sable, Freelance. After a few issues of Starslayer at First, he handed the writing chores over to newcomer John Ostrander (he had given the penciling chores to another newcomer, Lenin Delsol, starting with issue #7, his first, eh, First issue) to focus completely on Sable. Like Groo, Sable also enjoyed a long run at a variety of publishers. Over 100 issues on and off up until this past year. Sable also starred in a short-lived ABC-TV series in 1987, and was the subject of Grell's first prose novel in 2000.

With issue #10, Starslayer got a new back-up feature. Written and co-created by Ostrander, co-created by yet another new artist, Tim Truman, Grimjack had all the makings of yet another hit, and First knew it. They began plugging Grimjack in the editorials and letters pages, as well as in the fan magazines. When Grimjack's debut finally appeared, it blew fandom away. A smart mixture of Wolverine, Conan, Batman, Warlock, Mike Hammer, and Humphrey Bogart, the barbaric gumshoe/bar owner of Cynosure (the nexus of creation, where all worlds and realities converged) hit all the right buttons for those of us who had grown up in the 70s. Grimjack was callous, tough, hard-bitten, short-tempered, and mercenary, but he was also cool, heroic, and morally centered by his own code of ethics. Ostrander's stories were biting and hard-bitten, while Truman's art was kind of ugly, but awesomely cool in a punk sort of way, filled with raw energy, and gloriously detailed. By Starslayer #18, Grimjack was teaming up with Torin and then it was straight to his own title. A title that ran 81 issues.

With issue #20, Starslayer gained another back-up, Peter Gillis and Tom Sutton's mystical Black Flame, who had been the back-up in First's short-lived Mars series. The Black Flame never got his own comic, movie, TV show, or novel, but the feature did take over one entire issue of Starslayer, issue #27.

The final issue of Starslayer, #34, appeared in late 1985. Ten years later, Acclaim Comics reprinted Grell's original Pacific mini-series as a "director's cut", allowing Grell to rewrite, redraw, and expand wherever he felt the need. Sadly it didn't lead to a regular Starslayer series. Or movie. Or TV show. Or novel. Or even back-up strip.

That's it for this week, Awesome Ones. Don't worry, Ol' Groove will eventually fill you in on what The Rocketeer, Groo, Grimjack, Jon Sable, and even Starslayer were all about. Can't use up all my ammo in one post, now can I?

NEXT WEEK: "Insert Preview Here: DC Showcase, 80s Style". Don'tcha miss it!

(*At about the same time, Jim Starlin was planning on expanding his Metamorphosis Odyssey, which had been running in Epic Illustrated, into a series. The idea was to spin one of the main characters off into his own series. That character was to have been Vanth Starslayer. Grell informed Starlin of his ownership of the "Starslayer" name, so it was Vanth Dreadstar who went on to star in his own comic.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

What It Is: The Nexus of Capital Comics

In 1980, two former college-pals-turned-creative-team, writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude met with John Davis, Milton Griepp, and Richard Bruning, the heads of Capital City Distribution. Capital City, of Madison, Wisconsin, was looking to add a publishing division to their successful distribution company. Baron and Rude, two local talents were pitching a science fiction comic about a door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen in a war ravaged future. The Capital guys .liked Baron and Rude's style, but wanted no part of publishing a straight sci-fi comic. They wanted a costumed crime-fighter. Baron and Rude left, "bounced ideas back and forth" (Comic Book Artist #8, May 2000, p. 27) and came up with a 12 page strip featuring their hero, Nexus. Davis, Griepp, and Bruning dug it, asked for 20 more pages, and by early 1981, Nexus, a 44 page black and white magazine-sized comic hit the shelves of comic shops around the U.S.

Nexus wasn't your typical vanity or fan project trying to ape Marvel Comics. It was more professional than other comics of its type and much, much more original. Baron and Rude grew in their craft by leaps and bounds, and gave comics fans a new vision of what comics could strive for. Sure, Nexus' costume looked like a mix of the X-Men's Cyclops and Space Ghost by way of Dave Cockrum, but Rude's art showed a mastery of draftsmanship and anatomy akin to Gold Key's Russ Manning. Baron's scripting it pretty tight, fast paced, and surprisingly polished for a first-timer. Their concept, a sci-fi "hero" who tracks down and assassinates mass murderers wasn't the typical late 70s/early 80s comicbook fare. It was daring and different, showing that, right out of the gate, Baron and Rude were out to challenge fan favorites like Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, and John Byrne on their own turf.

The young writer and artist populated Nexus world with all kinds of alien life-forms, evil dictators, and hard science fiction concepts. The the darkness of super-powerful floating heads of decapitated men and women was balanced by the light and whimsy of alien allies with names like Dave (with his famous greeting, "What it is.") and Tyrone. Nexus gave fans more angst than X-Men and Teen Titans combined, but leavened it with a tongue-in-cheek humor worthy of the Original Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Only two young bucks who didn't know any better would have the chutzpah to try something like this. Only two young bucks with that kind of chutzpah could pull it off.

Baron and Rude not only pulled it off, but made it payoff. Fans were taking notice, and after two more black and white issues (the third featuring a "flexi-disc"; actually a plastic record with music, dialogue, and sound effects meant to be listened to while looking at the comic), Capital decided the time was right to meet Marvel, DC, Pacific, and Eclipse head-on. It was time for a full-color Nexus comicbook. Editor/Designer Rich Bruning was going to make sure that Nexus would be the best looking comic on the stands. No newsprint for Nexus, the color comic would be published on the more expensive, and very fashionable, Baxter paper, a whiter, heavier stock Marvel and DC saved for "special" projects (usually reprints of their classic comics). And since the Baxter paper could be used for more experimental printing methods, Bruning called upon George Freeman to color Nexus. Freeman would use the coloring and separation techniques he had learned from Captain Canuck creator Richard Comely when he was CC's artist.

When the "new color" Nexus made its debut in early 1983, it blew fandom away. With Baron's scripting, Rude's art, Freeman's coloring, and Bruning's slick art direction, Nexus was the comicbook we'd all been dreaming of. From the painted wrap-around cover to the clever ads Nexus looked for all the world like the future of comicbooks. Capital was already planning two new comics in the "Nexus format", and by every indication they were poised to become the next hot publisher.

Their next comic, Mike Baron's troubled superhero (he suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder) the Badger, with art by newcomer Jeff Butler, made his debut in late 1983. One of the most highly anticipated new comics of the season, Baron's quirky super-hero (and his side-kick, a fifth century druid by the name of Ham) won a lot of fans over in spite of Butler's stiff, less polished art. The slick package and coloring (which would be standard fare for all Capital comicbooks) helped overcome the semi-pro artwork, and besides, it was Baron's show. His writing was the star here. The Badger was a hit.

Capital was sticking to its plan to limit their output to three comics, while every other comicbook publisher sought to unleash a veritable flood of product into the comics shops. Their third title, Whisper, about a young woman caught up in a world of espionage and ninjas, hit the shops soon after Badger's debut. Tightly written by sometime Marvel author Steven Grant and loosely drawn by newcomer Rich Larson, complete with cover art by fan favorite Michael Golden, Whisper grabbed Daredevil and Electra fans, as well as hanging on to Nexus and Badger's fan base. It looked like Capital had nowhere to go but up.

But the other publishers, those glutting the market with more comics than had ever been published since the Golden Age, weren't really nuts about one of their distributors competing with them as another publisher. Capital realized that their bread and butter was distribution, and by early 1984, after six color issues of Nexus, four issues of the Badger, and two issues of Whisper, the brightest new publisher on the comicbook horizon was gone.

The other independent publishers, though, had taken notice of the amount of craft Capital had put into their coloring and packaging, and many raised their game to match the bar that Capital had set. Another new publisher, First Comics, soon got the rights to Nexus, Badger, and Whisper, and brought them back in all their full-processed color, Baxter paper glory. No longer did the "death" of a comicbook publisher mean "death" for the comics they published.

But that's a topic for a future post!

NEXT WEEK: "Starslayer: He Might've Slayed 'Em, But the Back-ups Were the Stars"

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Ballet of Violence: Frank Miller and Daredevil's Greatest Hits

When you think of Marvel Comics in the 1980s, you more often than not probably think of Frank Miller. You think of Daredevil. Of Elektra, of Kingpin, of Bullseye, of ninjas... Ah, who's kidding who? You think of the new level of bone-crunching violence Miller brought to comicbooks. That brutal, gritty, in-your-face, street level hand-to-hand combat that would never work in real life, but looks totally awesome on a comicbook page (especially when inked by Klaus Janson). Stuff like DD layin' the smackdown on various hoods and thugs...

... or DD beatin' down Bullseye... (DD #172, April 1981)

... or DD trying to whup up on Kingpin...ouch...(DD #171, March 1981)

... or DD and Electra kickin' the holy hoo-ha out of one another...(DD #179, November 1981)

... or Electra layin' the smackdown on various hoods and thugs...(DD #178, October 1981)

... or ninjas taking down ninjas (DD #174, July 1981).

Sometimes the violence was downright disturbing. Miller was adept at showing how brutal and callous mankind could be, as when Kingpin felt the need to use one of his flunkies as an object lesson as to why no one should ever mess with him. Ever (DD #172 again).

But to me, the most terrifying violence is the psychological kind. Miller showed that DD's lady-love, Electra, was its brutal master in this scene with a stoolie and reporter Ben Urich... (DD #179 again)

Oh, and you can blame the Comics Code, not Frank Miller, for the swords, knives, and sai's that could puncture flesh, muscle, bones, and organs but not the front of a shirt or coat. Miller had no intention of hiding the fact that violence was brutal and that it had terrible consequences. You could say that Miller's theme throughout his entire tenure as Daredevil writer/artist was violence and its consequences. Just think about how in Miller's second issue (DD #169, December 1980), DD defeated Bullseye and could have left him for dead. As the helpless villain lay unconscious, about to be run over by an oncoming subway train, our hero waged a war in his heart about how right or wrong such an action would be--and rescued his arch enemy.

The same arch enemy who would later callously murder his beloved Elektra...(DD #181, January 1982)

...causing Daredevil to rethink his stance on justice and mercy...

...and hardening our hero to the point that, in Miller's final issue as writer/artist (DD #191, November 1982), he would sit by Bullseye's bedside and torture him with a game of Russian Roulette.

And that was Miller learning his trade, dudes and dudettes. In upcoming posts, we'll be looking at Miller on top of his game and unleashed on the original Wolverine mini-series, Batman (The Dark Knight Returns and Year One), Ronin, and his writer-only return to Daredevil "Born Again". Stay tuned!

Next week: "What It Is: the Nexus of Capital Comics"!
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!