Friday, 30 October 2009

The Great Pumpkin

Leave it to all those other sites to post blood-curdling tales of terror. Here at BAOB we know what Halloween's really about. It's about sitting out all night in the cold waiting for The Great Pumpkin to appear. I remember as a kid being completely fooled by Linus' annual visits to the pumpkin patch. I thought America really did have a mythical figure who rose out of the ground every year and dispensed toys. After all, the USA had The Easter Bunny which we don't really have, so why not a pumpkin?
Of course, what this particular portion of The World's Greatest Comic Strip was really about was Linus' gullibility. Various people with way too much time on their hands have chosen to view The Great Pumpkin as a parable on Christian Evangelism, or even on the subject of faith itself.
I'm sure that Schulz wasn't unaware of that, but I'm equally sure he just liked a good running gag.
Here's some of The Big Guy's non-appearances from The Bronze Age.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Monster Of Dread End

Ok, technically this is a Silver Age tale, but we can bend the rules occasionally. And anyway, if you can't read at Halloween the creepiest, flesh-crawlingest horror comic ever done ever, when can you?
The Monster Of Dread End appeared in Dell's Ghost Stories in 1962, was written by John Stanley and illustrated by Ed Robbins, and seems to come from Hell itself. No matter how many times I read it, it still scares the living crap out of me. You can look at it all logically, and say it's kind of Lovecraftian. You can say the fact that the creature appears to be dead but obviously isn't, or the fact that you never see all of it ( or do you? ), or even the fact that there's no explanation for it all adds to it's terror. But I think it's more than that. Somehow, Stanley & Robbins tapped into something primal on this story. Maybe it's the childhood fear of things under the bed or in the wardrode, I don't know, but in some way I'm not able to intellectualize, The Monster Of Dread End creeps me out like nothing else. See if it does the same to you...

The Wrath Of The Spectre

The Spectre has, of course, been around since the '40's, when he was first created by Jerry Siegel. ( I love the fact that Jerry Siegel created The Spectre after creating Superman. I mean, what was he thinking? ) But The Spectre's finest hour was probably this short run in the pages of Adventure Comics.
It was a brilliant, ghoulish series that raised a few eyebrows at the time for it's violence
and, so the story goes, was inspired by an incident that happened to editor Joe Orlando. According to Jim Aparo: Someone had told me that Joe had told him that he had been mugged in the city, and the mugger got away, and Joe was infuriated over it and was looking for revenge.
Over to Joe: I might have used it to justify why I was doing that. As a kid, I liked the Superman who took the criminal up really high and said, 'Listen, buster, you tell me what's going to happen or I'm going to drop you'. That's why I read Superman. I don't like any super-heroes who are wimps. Because that's not fulfilling the job they're supposed to be doing, which is, when you've lost all recourse through legal channels, to use force. That's what a super-hero's about.
And that's absolutely what The Spectre's about here.
Scripted by comics greatest misanthrope Michael Fleisher and with art at the peak of his game from Aparo, each issue is basically the same nasty morality play. The bad guys do something unspeakably rotten, and The Spectre finds them, and kills them in the most creatively baroque, gruesome way Fleisher & collaborator Russell Carley can come up with.
That's really it, and you can't read too many of them in one go, but taken individually each story is a perfect rancid little gem.
There is some attempt at continuity later on, in the form of a faintly ludicrous romance between The Spectre's earthbound alter-ego Jim Corrigan & sexy socialite Gwen Sterling, ( he's a ghost, darlin'! ) and a sub-plot where a Clark Kent-ish reporter tries to find out why all these criminals keep dying in bizarre ways. ( Nice touch when Corrigan actually calls the guy Clark Kent. Post-modernism will eat itself! ) But it's really the gruesome acts of vengeance that stick in the memory. And unlike the EC's which obviously inspired a lot of this, the death's aren't always simple poetic justice ( like the hairdresser cut in half by a pair of giant scissors ), but more often things that come completely out of left field. Like my all-time favourite, where The Spectre turns a bad guy into wood, then runs him through a saw mill!
And the art is some of the best of Jim Aparo's career. His work of this period always seemed to me to be so complete, and so perfect, it was like a machine did it. Absolutely nothing is wrong or out of place, and there isn't a weak panel in the whole series. His art also had the 'cool' factor, something indefinable that only Gil Kane's could match. Every one of his characters somehow just looked unspeakably cool, like the greatest Rat Pack movie never made.
There's no real depth to this series, it does exactly what it says on the tin, but it's got something better. A raw, nasty energy. As Fleisher said: You can't read it without being affected by it's power. It violated many of the conventions ( in comics ) that people accepted. And in violating those conventions, because I wasn't interested in them and hadn't been educated in them, I created something that I think had a very unusual bite and energy to it. But at the same time, it was like a work of primitive art. It lacked a certain refinement.
Of course, it's a series that's not as shocking as it once was, but there's still that pure, unbridled hatred to it...

The trade collects the whole series, including three scripts that were abandoned when the series was cancelled, that Aparo finally got to draw in the '80's. They're not as good as the first stories, but hey, any Jim Aparo is welcome.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Berni Wrightson

It's Berni Wrightson's birthday today, and here's a caustic corker to celebrate. Berni is to our generation what 'Ghastly' Graham Ingels was to the '50's, and as far as I'm concerned, nobody (with the obvious exception of Ghastly) does horror better. Here's Berni's tribute to his spiritual mentor, sadly the only piece he did for Epic Illustrated. There's not much to say about this piece, other than that it's damn near perfect, up there with Wrightson's adaptation of Creepshow. Horror comics simply don't get better than this. Remember to flush now.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Tarzan Weekly

Thanks are due once again to Brill Bronze Age Buddy Graham for forwarding me these scans of the UK weekly Tarzan comic I couldn't remember the title of. ( Tarzan Weekly, doofus! And hey, let's bring back 'Brill' as a slangword )
I absolutely had that first issue there with it's classically british cover ie. shove everything in there, including the fact there's a FREE GIFT INSIDE. You always got slightly lame free gifts in first issue's in the UK ( 2000AD gave away a mini frisbee with their premiere appearance ) and lemme tell ya, that jungle survival kit sure came in handy in the wilds of the Clements housing estate.
I also remember it was printed on really flimsy paper. Remember the paper that Captain Britain was printed on? It was cheaper than that, so I doubt many copies survived in good condition.
Here's the back page of that first issue, courtesy of Russ Manning. Like I said before, has Tarzan ever looked righter?

Graham reckons it lasted about 20 issues before going monthly, and then rapidly disappearing, but as he says, british comics generally didn't continue numbering after the first couple of releases, so who knows? While I try'n find out, here's another great, great cover by Russ.

While here's Dan Spiegle on Korak. Even though it's obviously Dan, it could actually pass for a great british strip of the time, like Adam Eterno or The Leopard From Lime St. tho' obviously the grid design is american and therefore more interesting than our slightly staid formula of that period.
Incidentally, the Deathless Dialogue award goes to that copper: " Only Lord Pelham I know of would be the one from Pelham Manor " Man, Columbo's got nothing to worry about with you around, pal, has he?

According to David & Graham Tarzan Weekly, as well as Spiegle & Manning, boasted in it's pages the likes of: Dave Stevens, Mike Ploog, Alex Nino & Pat Boyette. Plus Korak was written by Mark Evanier, all of which means I'm gonna be scouring ebay for some of this stuff immediately. This looks like treasure trove / must get of the week to me.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Frank Robbins

I don't think anybody polarized opinion more during The Bronze Age than Frank Robbins. Amongst my comic reading friends at the time, pretty much everybody absolutely loathed his work. Me, I liked it, if only to annoy those selfsame friends.
At least, I liked it up to a point. If I knew Frank was doing a book regularly, like say The Human Fly or The Invaders, well ok, that was fair enough. I had the choice there. It was when Marvel cheated that used to annoy me. Y'know, like getting Gil Kane to do the cover of a book you bought regularly ( 'cos I'd buy the phone book if it was illustrated by Gil ) then sneakily getting Frank in for that one issue to do the inside.

So why didn't some people like Frank's art? Here's a few quotes I'm sure we all heard at the time: His people look like they're made out of rubber! or The human body can't make those kind of contortions! or howabout Everybody looks like they're covered in slick black grease! or even the ever popular His art is just so damn ugly!
Even Frank's biggest fans would have to agree with at least one of those, and I'm as guilty as anyone else, there were times I thought his stuff was hideous, but y'know what I think it was, really?
I think the real issue was the kind of assignments he was given. Let's look at his great newspaper strip Johnny Hazard for starters.

Now, in anybody's eyes that is brilliant work. Sure, it reeks of Milton Caniff, but what cartoonist of Frank's generation wasn't a Caniff disciple at one point or another? Even if you don't like the style, you can't argue with Robbins' storytelling chops or his sense of design.
Of course, It was when he hit Marvel that the naysayers came out in force, me included. But don't forget, both Stan & Roy were thrilled to have him there. Here they are at a con in '74, just as Frank had been inducted into The House of Ideas.

From left to right, that's Frank, Joe Simon, Phil Seuling, The Rascally One & Mrs. Rascally Jeanie Thomas. And here's another shot of Stan, Frank & Joe.

Here's the thing, Frank was an arch stylist and a uniquely individual artist. What he wasn't was a superhero artist, at least not in The Mighty Marvel Manner like, say, the Buscema's. Take a look at his Cap & The Red Skull.

Brilliantly frenetic, yes. Almost a fever dream parody of the Marvel style, in fact. But not really that style. Not what we were used to. We wanted our heroes to look like heroes, dammit, not coke addicts in the throes of withdrawal. Or how about Frank's contribution to Steve Englehart's classic Nomad phase of Cap.

I love that panel now. At the time, I know for a fact I hated it. Nomad was the best, coolest idea anyone'd had in ages for Cap, and here was Frank Robbins ruining it!

But in a sense it wasn't his fault. He was obviously trying his best to adapt his idiosyncratic style into material that didn't suit it. Take that issue of Marvel Premiere there. Alfredo Alcala should've done it, or Mike Ploog at the very least.

Frank did a great, surreal job, but he just wasn't the right artist for the project. And I'd've said the same if Big John or Jim Mooney had got the job. I'm not saying Robbins couldn't do horror. Just that it didn't feel right. Or howabout the regular series he did, The Invaders. With hindsight, I can see how much fun Roy Thomas' love letter to The Golden Age was, ( tho' I suspect it was more fun for Roy than the readers ), but at the time, it was second only to The Human Fly for me and my friends in the area of 'last book in the shop you'd buy & then only if there was nothing else.'

Never particularly cared one way or the other about Cap, and wasn't even vaguely into the original Human Torch & Toro. Liked Subby, but he was much more fun over at The Defenders, where he stormed off like a petulant teenager each and every issue. Oh, and Bucky was interesting 'cos technically he was dead. But no, just didn't care. And as much as I enjoyed pissing my friends off by admitting to Robbins love, I didn't like him enough to invest in a series by him, particularly with characters I didn't give a stuff about.
Always liked that issue of Ghost Rider Frank did though, the one with The Phantom Eagle, even if it did come with a classic 'cheat' Gil Kane cover.

Interestingly, over at DC, Frank seemed to get a little more respect. He wrote tons of great Batman stories, of course. Though again, his version of The Caped Crusader was just too wrong-headed for me.

Like all of his characters, Bruce here seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown, yet another thing fans didn't like about Frank's art. His people were always frantic and sweaty, even when there was nothing to be frantic and sweaty about. And again, Bats looks like he's completely made out of rubber, even before he puts his cowl on.
But, on the flipside, there's his work on The Shadow, where's the Caniff inspiration is to the max. For instance, here's one of the all-time great covers ever done by anyone.

An absolute masterpiece of design and style. And here's Frank showing how good he is at sweaty Nazi's & sexy chicks.

He drew kinda foxy women, it must be said, even if they moved in ways only a russian gymnast would find appealing.
I think for all the work Frank did throughout The Bronze Age, where his style really worked was in the humour pieces. He was a cartoonist, as opposed to an illustrator, and in the pages of books like Plop! the insane bodily contortions actually worked.

I still don't think I could say I loved Frank Robbins' work, not like I love Chaykin's or Cardy's, to name but two, but I certainly don't recoil from it like I might've back in the '70's. It's bizarrely fascinating in a way, and if Twomorrows feel like doing a book about the guy, I'll be there, tripping over my legs going in six different directions to get it.