Devil Dinosaur #2, 1978 “Devil’s War!”

In the mid 1970’s, Marvel comics had a lot going good. The horror genre was pumping out books like crazy, the reprint era was in full swing, and the return of Jack Kirby cemented the company as the best in the business. The main man at Marvel for weird/wacky stories was undoubtedly Steve Gerber (and rightfully so, as no one can write those kind of great stories like he could), but Kirby gave him a run for his money during this era for sure! Anyway, is it even possible to not like a giant red T-Rex with a ape-like boy riding around on his back? Of course not! In this tale, Moonboy and DD run into a pack of humanoids that want to kill them, and if they don’t, the giant spider might!

Written, drawn, and edited by the king of comics, Jack Kirby! His contributions were already nothing short of legendary, but this era added some spice to the Kirby lore, and it will never be forgotten. A helping hand on inks was delivered by Mike Royer, colors by Petra Goldberg, and some editing assistance from Archie Goodwin!

 

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Cinema Sunday: Torture Garden (1967)

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Title: Torture Garden

Distributor: Columbia Pictures, Amicus Studios Production

Writer: Robert Bloch

Director: Freddie Francis

Producers: Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky

Starring: Burgess Meredith, Peter Cushing, Jack Palance, Michael Ripper, Barbara Ewing, Beverly Adams

Released: November 1967

MPAA: Approved

 

As my regular readers know, I’m a humongous fan of the legendary British film company, Hammer Studios. They ruled the genre for quite some time, but definitely had rivals. The biggest, was probably Amicus Productions. This upstart company was a little different in one aspect though, as their movies weren’t period pieces, but rather in contemporary settings. This was about the only thing  that set them apart though, as they used the same actors, producers, and a lot of the same tropes in their films.

The cast is key in this one, and by the ending of the film, you’ll be surprised, no doubt about it! And let’s be honest, is there a creepier setting than a carnival? The bearded lady alone is enough to scare the pants off me! Alright, now, to the movie…

 

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The film begins with a side-show carnival barker trying to entice people to see his “torture garden.” A sign shows that the host, Dr. Diablo (Burgess Meredith), will have you screaming at these disturbing images. A small crowd shuffles in, and Diablo shows them an electric chair with what appears to be a man strapped in it. He throws the switch, and the “man” is fried. It obviously looks like a  dummy though, and some in the crowd aren’t impressed. Diablo then encourages the crowd to join him in his secluded area, where the real thrills are to take place. He tells them it costs £5, and most are skeptical. Diablo then uses basic high school peer pressure to get a few to pay up and go inside.

 

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Five people (Michael Ripper, Jack Palance, Michael Bryant, Barbara Ewing, and Beverly Adams) go inside, and Diablo does something very strange after they leave the first room. Diablo takes the money that the people gave him, and he throws it into the fire pit in the middle of the room! Awfully sure of himself, isn’t he?  One man, Colin Williams (Michael Bryant), pulls a curtain away, and sees a wax figure that resembles a fortune-teller. They all seem let down, but then Diablo appears and tells that this is no ordinary fortune-teller, but one that will reveal something ghastly about your future if you peer into her eyes. As Diablo lulls him into a sense of safety, the adventure begins.

 

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We see a scene where Colin drives his motor car to see his uncle, who’s very rich, but also, very ill. The door opens, and a woman walks out, and looks like the fortune-teller. He shakes his head in disbelief, and when he looks again, it’s just a regular woman. She’s apparently been taking care of the old man. Colin goes inside and tries to pry some money from his uncle, but he’s very dodgy about where he gets his money. Colin tells his uncle that he’s been asking around town how his uncle pays for things since he hasn’t worked in thirty years.  He wont tell, but then begins to have a heart attack, and needs his medication. Colin wont get it for him, and the old guy keels over right there on the spot.

 

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The coroner comes to pick up the body, and this leaves Colin to loot the house. Eventually, he finds a door in the floor of his uncle’s bedroom. He heads down into the secret compartment (basement?), and gets more than he bargained for. He uses a shovel to dig around but initially finds nothing. After some time, he finds a casket of sorts, and opens it using the shovel. Inside, he finds a skeleton, and a cat! The cat scurries away, and he continues to dig around.

 

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We then see him awaking on the couch upstairs, and the cat  growls at him. He then seems to go into a bit of a trance, and we get the impression that the cat is somehow communicating with him (possessed?). It tells him that he needs to do some favors for it, and he’ll be rewarded. The door then opens and the cat runs away, with Colin following. It leads him to a hobo sleeping in the barn. The cat begins to assert control over Colin, and forces him to pick up a pitchfork and murder the man. Again, Colin wakes up on the couch and believes it all to have been a dream. He sees the basement opened up and heads down to see what was real and what might be fantasy. As he gets down in the room, the cat is waiting for him, and once again claims to be ready to reward him for helping with whatever it needs. He picks up a shovel and digs up a chest full of gold coins.

Next, he quickly runs out to the barn, and sees that indeed he did murder the hobo, as the cat willed him to do. He dashes back into the house and down the steps into the basement, horrified at what he’s done. He begins to bury the gold, but the cat once again forces him to stop, and then tells him to murder the hospice worker that’s about to enter the house. As she enters through the back entrance, Colin picks up a shovel, and murders the old woman. Later that night, Colin is putting his trunk of gold into his car, when a policeman happens by, to warn him about a man who the police are looking for in the area (the hobo?). He tells him he’s seen no one, and the officer offers to help with the trunk, only to realize there’s blood on the handle.

 

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In the next scene, Colin is being locked up in jail, and tries to explain what’s been going on to a lawyer. He tells of the demonic cat, and how it forced him to do these terrible things. The lawyer looks at him as if he’s loony, and then asks him what happened to the heads of the victims. Colin tells him that the cat feeds on them, and if he doesn’t get to feed, he’ll come for his head. The lawyer leaves, and of course, everyone thinks he’s insane. A few minutes later, the cat appears on the ledge by the window. Colin begins screaming and the guard comes in to see what’s going on. By then, the cat has disappeared, but Colin is still hysterical. The guard tells him to calm down, and leaves the room. As he does, the cat returns, and takes Colin’s head as recompense!

One by one, the others are led to the fortune-teller, and see atrocities that they may be a part of in the future or maybe have already! Watch to find out the gruesome fate of these seemingly ordinary people, and the secrets they bear!

 

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OK, here are my thoughts:

The film is one that houses an idea that’s been put on the screen and in books before, there’s no denying that, but when these actors and actresses put their personal spin on the characters, that’s when the magic happens. I honestly think this is the best performance I’ve ever seen by Burgess Meredith. Now, before anybody goes ballistic on me, I haven’t seen many of his films outside of Clash of the Titans, and the Rocky franchise. All good performances, no doubt, but by the end of this film, you’ll believe he’s the devil himself! Now, to the others. Jack Palance and Peter Cushing share the final “future sequence” together, and it’s one for the ages. Not only do they do the film justice, but the scene also is about Edgar Allen Poe and his fantastic works!

Each of the dream sequences are different but the same. Not in a monotonous way really, but nothing really sets them apart so that you can single one out over the others in terms of better or worse. All of them have a charm to them in one way or another, but obviously I’m partial to the Cushing scene! The ladies in this film are absolutely gorgeous (Beverly Adams- image below, Barbara Ewing- even though she has a terrible hairdo or wig, and Nicole Shelby in her skivvies), and this era of woman is not only beautiful, but very commanding as well.

The music score was by two veterans of the industry, in James Bernard and Don Banks. These two gentlemen were stalwarts in the biz back then and really know how to get the music to match the scene. The writer, Robert Bloch, is another man who really shouldn’t need any introduction, but if you’re not familiar with his work, definitely Google him (you should at least know him as the man who wrote the story Hitchcock used for Psycho in 1960).

Definitely give this one a viewing, you’ll not be disappointed, I guarantee it! It’s one of those hidden gems of the era that you never hear about outside of circles that are hardcore fans of the genre.

 

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Click here for the trailer!

 

Comic Book’s Unsung Heroes: An Interview with- Steven Grant! Part 2

Well, here we go with part two of the interview. In this segment, Steven and I discuss more of his Marvel work, then on to his time at DC comics, Dark Horse Comics, and finally his work in the film industry! Huzzah!

 

     Billy: Can you talk about some of your early work for Marvel Comics (Avengers, Defenders, Hulk, Marvel Fanfare, Moon Knight, Marvel Two-in-One, etc.)?

 

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Steven: Well, you know… my early Marvel stuff was largely junk. I didn’t set out to make it that, I don’t think I did badly considering I didn’t know what I was doing, but looking back I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment. You have to understand the corporate comics system. It didn’t really matter what your interests were. Your interests & ambitions for the medium were of very little interest to the companies, in most cases. Writers were expected to be able to write anything they were assigned, regardless of content, whether Spider-Man, Tomb Of Dracula, Shogun Warrior, Millie The Model, didn’t matter. Aesthetic considerations beyond the needs of any individual story were pretty much dismissed as fanboy shit, the mark of an amateur. It was very curious. I wasn’t assigned any regular books, though I did end up with little runs here & there. Those were mostly incidental to the process. All my work was pickup work. After disastrous publishing schedule screw-ups all through the ‘70s, where scores of comics either went to the printer late – the company paid penalties when that happened – or had reprints instead of original material, editors piled up inventory material for every comic. That was my bread & butter. It was a matter of scraping up any work I could get. Some promised story the regular writer doesn’t want to deal with? I’m your man. Need an issue of Tarzan you no longer have the rights to publish transformed into an issue of Battlestar Galactica? No problem. It was a crash course in being “a professional.” There’s a line in Citizen Kane where someone scornfully asks Kane what he knows about running a newspaper. “I don’t know anything about running a newspaper,” he answers. “I just try everything I can think of.” That was pretty much my approach. You learn to bury your own ambition for the most part & keep your eyes open for possibilities. It doesn’t matter what you want to do, you have to take that desire & put it behind material you really couldn’t care less about but that’s what you have to work with. It’s not as soul-draining as it sounds, or doesn’t have to be. Even then I looked on it as an apprenticeship, & learned to approach stories as a series of problems to be solved, which isn’t a bad approach to take. In some ways it helped bring my ambitions into focus. The downside was it was growing up in public. People end up with an image of you that’s hard to shake.

 

     Billy: What was it like jumping from Marvel to DC in that era and jumping back and forth between the two companies?

 

Steven: I didn’t really do that. I’d tried getting work from DC several times from the moment I got to NYC but just couldn’t crack that nut. Marvel in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s frowned on that anyway. There were a couple Marvel editors who kept clandestinely mentioning the hush-hush “secret” that Marvel was about to buy DC, which in those days was doing miserably enough to keep the story frightening credible, & those who stayed loyal to Marvel would have first dibs on assignments after the buyout, while those who jumped beforehand would be frozen out of the business. It was always bulls**t, I think pretty much everyone knew it. But threats like those were common behind the scenes. I was once out to lunch with Archie Goodwin, in the early days of his Epic tenure, & came back to find a very big name of that era shaking angrily at the Xerox machine, which was in the hallway outside the Epic offices. I asked if something was wrong, & they told me they’d also been at lunch, with a very big name in the company, who informed them of the pecking order for Marvel assignments: 1) Those on the Marvel staff. 2) Those with exclusive Marvel contracts. 3) Those who weren’t exclusive to Marvel but worked exclusively for them anyway. 4) (said with great hostility) The “scum” who’ll work for anybody. It was laughed off immediately, but the talent in question knew they were the target, since they were doing a couple things for DC. This was after Marv & George had jumped & gotten one of DC’s feet out of the grave with New Teen Titans. DC very easily could’ve died if not for that book.

 

But DC remained out of my reach throughout the ‘80s. It was other places like First Comics that I branched into, writing toy comics for Mattel after I moved to Los Angeles, things like that. I was a freelancer. Marvel never treated me as anything but a freelancer. If they wanted me exclusive they never made any more to assure it & for the most part they probably didn’t want me at all. I just never had the right attitude for Marvel. Or DC. DC seemed to think I was very difficult to work with. Despite rivalries between companies, all the editors talked, & it wasn’t uncommon for them to spread bulls**t about freelancers among each other, something that was a major problem for a lot of comics talent. It was fairly easy to get frozen out by misinformation. Since I never really felt in that never bothered me much, but there were a couple of opportunities I would’ve liked to have been able to capitalize on. C. 1984 Paul Smith & I made a pitch to take over Green Lantern. I think Marv was writing it at the time, & leaving. Paul & I both loved the character from childhood & had compatible takes, & they took a meeting with us, without mentioning it had already been assigned to Len Wein & Dave Gibbons. They were mostly interested in stealing Paul from Marvel, which didn’t happen for another few years. But that’s what comics were like in the ‘80s.

 

But sometime in ’92, editor Jonathan Peterson called me out of the blue. He liked my Punisher stuff, & was hitting a deadline snafu on Deathstroke, which he edited. He needed an issue that took place in between the issues on either side, which presented a continuing storyline with only a few minutes passing between them. Of course I did it. He then asked me write a run on Deathstroke to spell Marv Wolfman, who was having deadline problems. I got along with Jonathan beautifully, at DC & later on after he had jumped to Wildstorm. Editors jumped a lot in the ‘90s, much more than in the ‘80s. Andy Helfer invited Mike Zeck & I to do a story for Legends Of The Dark Knight, which passed to Archie Goodwin. Archie & I had known each other for years at that point & got on great. Michael Golden took me on a de facto staff writer during his brief editorial stint; I must’ve written a couple dozen issues of things – revamps of The Web for the dying !mpact line, The Shadow Strikes, a solo book of the character Salvo from Thriller, I know there were other things but I forget what – that were all killed the second he quit, & never saw print. But I got paid for them. I’d worked with Dan Thorsland at Dark Horse, so when he jumped to DC I ended up working with him. Same kind of deal at Marvel. Editors would ask you to do stuff. Don Daley was trying to boost the Punisher books & asked me back to the character. A woman named Hildy Mesnik who I knew from Los Angeles became a Marvel editor & wanted me to write for her. I did a stunt job for Danny Fingeroth, & ended up doing a run on Spectacular Spider-Man. That was the ‘90s. It wasn’t about the companies at that point, it was about the editors. You formed relationships, & jumped around with them. The downside of that was when they left their jobs, increasingly frequent during the contraction, you ended up high & dry. New editors were strongly encouraged to “make their mark” on books, usually interpreted as dumping everyone previously associated with it. But that’s always a risk of freelancing.

 

But by the ‘90s I’d realized my best chance for economic survival was being published by as many companies as possible. I was writing for a lot more companies than Marvel & DC, both of which were (fortunately for me) becoming much less important to my career.

 

     Billy: Can you talk a little bit about your work for Dark Horse Comics?

 

Steven: I kind of sideways my way into Dark Horse. In 1989 I ran into Bill Marks, publisher of Vortex Comics out of Canada, at a retailer’s convention in Madison, one of the few times I’d been back there since I left. At that point he was flush off the mad success of Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss &, knowing Howard & I hung out a lot in Los Angeles & I guess knew I had an interest in crime material, asked if I had any good crime comics ideas, because he wanted to publish more of them. I didn’t, but concocted on the spot the single best pitch I’ve ever done. Verbatim: “A crime story… set in 1963, & starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.” Turned out he was a Kennedy assassination fanatic, & he bought it on the spot. This became Badlands. Bill published the first issue but had overextended with too many projects & quit publishing. By that point I’d written the whole thing – it might’ve been the fastest, easiest job I ever did, it just flowed like the rushing waters, it was practically automatic writing – & I really liked it, still list it as arguably my best work, so I surveyed the landscape for a new publisher, figured Dark Horse was the best bet & sent it cold to Mike Richardson.

 

He liked it. I took the opportunity to pitch another idea. When I was writing for Jonathan at DC, he encouraged me to come up with revamps for fallow old DC properties. I developed a pretty political take on the ‘40s character Americommando, whose name I love. It’s such a great & such a stupid name at the same time. That went nowhere, so I massaged it into a new property I named Patriot X & pitched to Mike. Mike liked the idea but was unnerved by it too, since he & part of the Dark Horse staff had been secretly spent a couple of years developing a superhero universe, & one of their central characters was a vigilante named X who had a couple of characteristics in common with Patriot X. I think he was a little nervous I’d think they had ripped me off, though I assured him I never thought that the case. So he offered me the scripting chores to X & agreed to publish Patriot X if I renamed it to avoid conflicts. It came out as Enemy (issue #1 image below), edited by Bob Schreck, who’s been a very good friend ever since. Dan Thorsland edited X & also became a good friend, & kept working with me when he jumped to DC a couple of years later.

 

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At the time Dark Horse was trying to expand into movies, only to find that no one in Hollywood took you seriously as a film company until you’d made a film. Any film, doesn’t really matter, you just have to prove you can produce a film. Mike Richardson had hooked up with a very well-known producer named Larry Gordon. Larry had a little horror picture already in the can, & decided to jump-start Dark Horse Productions by putting their name on it. It was a perfectly ghastly thing called Dr. Giggles. Due to circumstances, Mike needed a comics adaptation of it yesterday, right about the time we were talking projects. While I had never done a film adaptation prior to that, I had done several issues of First Comics’ Classics Illustrated revival. So, more for professional lubricant than anything else, I signed on to do the Dr. Giggles comic. I guess that went well enough they started asking me to do other adaptations, like Alien 3 & Robocop 3. Because I’ve ended up doing quite a bit of Robocop over the years, a lot of people think I have strong affection for the material, but it was all just assignments. I always tried to do as good a job as I could, but movies are other people’s projects. While there are things I’m a big fan of, I tend to save my affections for my own creations.

 

Funny story related to them, though. I was on a panel at a Portland Con discussing adapting movies to comics with John Arcudi, who did a lot of adapted/expanded movie comics for Dark Horse. I mentioned in passing I’d gotten a phone call from Fred Dekker, director of Robocop 3, to tell me how much he liked the adaptation. John caught me on the floor later & asked if that story was true. When I said it was, he got very depressed, because no one ever called him with a similar message. I asked if he put his phone number on his scripts. He said no. I told him he might want to try that, it increases the odds dramatically.

 

Enemy didn’t sell at all, but it did end up being bought & made into a TV pilot by Fox c. 1996. I think it was the first thing David Goyer, who wrote the pilot, got a producer credit on. I’m told for a  while it was on the fall schedule, though ultimately it wasn’t, & though it went nowhere it opened up doors for Dark Horse, so the project was probably a net win for them. Mike recently asked me to revive it, so we’re probably doing a new Enemy series next year. It’s only 22 years later…

 

    Billy: Two series that you had stories in that I think never get enough play are Marvel Fanfare (#52-54) and Nightstalkers (#12-15). Your thoughts on them?

 

Steven: The Black Knight story in Marvel Fanfare I have a great fondness for. As I mentioned it was, with the Punisher, among the first things I ever pitched to Marvel. It was a real longshot storyline, spinning off a Defenders story Steve Englehart had done that basically stranded Dane Whitman, the modern Black Knight, in the body of his 12th C. ancestor, fighting alongside Richard Lionheart in the Crusades. Steve had left us with a real “Gosh, golly, this swashbuckling era of heroism is where I belong!” ending, which I found pretty laughable. I’d read up on the Crusades a lot, & while we maintain this fiction about lords, ladies & chivalry, it’s hard to find a more soul crushing period for western civilization. The underlying theme of the series pitch was the fierce discrepancy between Dane Whitman’s fantasy of the era & its harsh reality. Al Milgrom cottoned to that, likening it to how wonderful it would be to live in the 1890s where you could buy a whole schooner of beer for a nickel… but who had a nickel? That was it exactly. The first issue of the three done was the Buscema one. John’s pencils were fantastic on it. This was ’79 or ’80 & by that point Conan had settled into something of a sameness from story to story, & he was thrilled to work in a similar but different milieu. It has much more of a Prince Valiant/Arabian Nights feel to it than his Conan stuff, & he put a lot more into the linework. This was a huge deal for me at that stage of the career, one of my first real chances to play with the big kids. The story was actually a true story from the Crusades, with the fantasy elements of the Black Knight tossed in. Richard Lionheart had captured a walled city – Acre or Tyre, I forget which, one of those – & sent an emissary to Saladin, commander of the Arab troops & one of the renowned knights of the era, a supposed paragon of chivalry. Richard & Saladin are sort of the yin & yang of Crusade-era chivalry, though both were capable of some pretty severe things. Richard made a peace offer to Saladin that had a deadline to it, & if Saladin’s positive response wasn’t delivered by deadline, Richard promised to burn the city to the ground with all the inhabitants sealed inside. Saladin agreed to the terms, but the emissary got lost going back, so Richard burned the city & its citizens to ash. Not a high spot for chivalry. In my story the Black Knight is the emissary, waylaid by the legendary semi-historical figured Hassan ibn Sabbah, the Old Man Of The Mountains, leader of the Hashashin, whence we get the term assassin. The Hashashin really did terrorize the region around that time. The Black Knight finally makes it back only to learn his boyhood hero, Richard, has without remorse, regret or hesitation done this horrific thing, & it’s such a rude awakening to him, & his latter day 20th century sensibilities, that he’s forced to desert. I had about a six year storyline worked out that would’ve taken him around most of Eurasia, colliding with a lot of history & legend, like the Prester John myth that had already been introduced in Marvel, & to eventually end up off Ireland on the Island Of Avalon, helping defend the doomed island from the onslaught of the Fomor, essentially the Titans of Irish myth. This became the Avengers story, with my way to time travel him back to the 20th century… where his body had been turned to stone & then to rubble. He did it the hard way: he slept for 800 years. It was a lot of fun, & very indicative of the kind of material I was already veering toward even then. But it went into the drawer, until Al fished it out in the mid-90s & got the other two stories of the arc drawn & all of them published in Marvel Fanfare. Just one of a million lost opportunities, but that’s often the path of the business: for every opportunity you get there are dozens you lose out on. There’s a couplet at the end of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that goes “But if thou wouldst cast all away in vain, I know not but ‘t’will make me dream again.” That’s really the way you have to approach these things.

 

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Nightstalkers. Kind of a mess, from my perspective. First of all, it had created & written by my friend Dan Chichester, who didn’t know he was being taken off the book. Hildy Mesnik, who I’d worked with at the short lived TSR-West Comics in Los Angeles, had come on as editor, & really wanted me to take it over, but I was forbidden from telling Dan until Marvel talked to him. It was uncomfortable. I’m not really a horror comic guy, not even a horror hero guy, but I liked working with Hildy & at the time I thought Ron Garney was supposed to be drawing it. But Ron wasn’t drawing it. So I do two stories with Hildy, when all of a sudden Marvel tells Hildy, who was also editing Barbie Comics, that she could either edit Barbie OR horror comics, but not both. They didn’t want to risk the markets colliding. Hildy very apologetically called me to say she was going with the Barbie books because that’s what she really wanted to do. I completely understood but it kicked a peg out from under Nightstalkers for me. Then Bobbie Chase’s office decided on a big crossover event that would draw all the horror hero books like Ghost Rider & Nightstalkers into a Midnight Sons trade dress/franchise. By that point, being swamped with work for the first time in my career, I’d already decided something had to give & it would have to be Nightstalkers, but I hung through the two months of that, & while I was working on my last issue I told them it was my last issue. It was nothing personal, just a matter of priorities, but they didn’t seem to take it well. Things got kind of weird at Marvel for a while after that, spilling into other books. But, honestly, my leaving wasn’t an indictment of the concept or anything. It just wasn’t the right fit for me. The only idea I really had for any future stories was to have Hannibal King defeat Dracula at last & become King Of The Vampires.

 

    Billy: Can you speak a bit about your Manhunter and Challengers of the Unknown runs. Can you also talk a little bit about taking over the direction of books/characters that have such a lengthy history.

 

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Steven: I can’t say their lengthy history mattered much to me. They were ground level revamps so that was mostly irrelevant, unless editors or fans made a big issue of it. I was familiar with all the originals, of course, but concerning myself with them wasn’t something I was hired for.

 

For the most part, both Manhunter & COTU were books I made the creative decisions on. There was very little editorial interference on either. So I feel very proprietary toward both, something that’s really pretty stupid to do with corporate comics. Both, along with Fate, have essentially been written out of continuity.

 

When Archie Goodwin moved over to DC, he was pretty much told to develop his own line. I forget whether I approached  him or he approached me, but I had an idea for Manhunter I wanted to try. He didn’t like it. At all. But! For very good reason, Archie was extremely proud of the Manhunter strip he had done with Walt Simonson in the ‘70s, really the first intentional mini-series done by a major comics company. Of course, since it was deservedly loved by many, many writers would approach him to say “Archie, I really love your Manhunter series,” &, because nobody in comics can ever leave well enough alone, they’d always follow up with, “I’ve got a great idea for bringing him back.” What never crossed their minds was that Archie didn’t WANT his Manhunter brought back. It didn’t end the way it did by accident. What he wanted was a new Manhunter, to effectively take reviving his off the table.

 

Don’t recall exactly why I tapped into Wild Huntsman mythology for the book, but it was a chance to invent my own mythology. I was trying a lot of different things in that run. I have a special fondness for issues 1 & 5, but the whole series was a chance to run with whatever oddball idea I could come up with. I knew it probably wouldn’t last long. Response wasn’t especially good. On the one hand, you had the fans of John Ostrander’s previous Manhunter series pissed off that we were supplanting that. Poor Vince Giarrano, our artist, had come off several years struggling to get work from editors all over the place who kept telling him if he wanted work he had to learn how to draw like Rob Liefeld. So he did, just in time for Image to cool & the backlash against Rob heat up. This isn’t a criticism of Rob, I like Rob, have absolutely nothing against him, but we got a lot of complaints that the book looked like a Liefeld knockoff. People complained the costume was too much like the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter’s. The character was something of an unhero – he wasn’t an anti-hero per se but being a superhero wasn’t his ambition in life, even after he got his powers; I’d probably have been better off going a more traditional routes of either squarejaw or psychopath. And I was experimenting a little with narrative, something that’s always guaranteed to win over lots of readers. DC also hooked the book into their Zero Hour mini-series, even though the two had nothing to do with each other, & fans were abreacting to the by then common practice of companies using big events to shove a whole new raft of books down their throats. Of the seven or eight books that were launched in conjunction with Zero Hour, only Starman made any headway. Unfortunately I ended up connected with two of the others. Pretty much by that point a new ethic had taken hold of fandom, where rather than instead of going out of their way to check out new books they went out of their way to find excuses not to even look at them. It wasn’t just Manhunter. It was pretty much everything. There are a lot of things I maybe should’ve done differently but I don’t know that anything would’ve changed anything. At least I can look back & say I like it. I can’t do that with all my work.

 

COTU was another mostly ignored series, but maybe my favorite of all my corporate comics save my Punisher stuff with Mike. First, John Paul Leon, a massively underrated talent who should be feted in the business far & wide, was wonderful to work with. Just gorgeous art. A lot of complaints right off the bat for this one too. Kirby & old school DC fans were outraged we switched to a whole new cast, & we got complaints that we were being disgustingly PC by including a women, an African-American & an Asian-American on the team. People complained it was like a pitch for a TV show. They weren’t incorrect. It was. It originated about a year earlier when Jenette Kahn, who’d been publisher at DC, was trying to segue into Hollywood, before the company’s current run there. Hollywood was X-Files nutty at the time, & Jenette had the sense COTU could be a hot property, but not in its original form, which was very much a product of the 1950s. So, yeah, we made the cast more diverse. I had no problem with that then, have none with it now. The one thing I tried not to do with any of them is make them representatives for their category. Not entirely sure why DC approached me to write a bible for a TV pitch, except that they didn’t want to spend the money a screenwriter would cost, Enemy was then being filmed as a Fox pilot, & maybe they thought I was more involved in that than I really was. They paid me decently enough. The idea was to sell the series to TV then launch a comic. Within a few months they realized they weren’t going to be taken seriously unless a comic already existed – even then at that time being taken seriously by Hollywood was still something of a pipe dream – so they got back in touch about turning it all into a comic for them.

 

I had great fun with it, but again probably got a little too cute for the market. The four members of the group follow the Earth-Water-Fire-Air elemental pattern of Kirby’s originals, down to their first & last names corresponding to their elements, but I never made it more explicit than that. Even a name like Clay Brody you probably wouldn’t see that in without consulting a baby name book. DC wanted to give them superpowers, which I felt would water things down too much. I convinced them instead to let them have “affinities,” sort of more a handshake deal with their various elements than command over them. It was a very fun book to write, lots of subversive ideas, & besides John Paul we had other really good artists, like Jill Thompson & Ryan Sook. (I know I’m forgetting people, & I apologize.) I conned Mike into drawing a couple issues. We were originally given until #25 to wrap the series up, but after Mike did #18, an issue COTU themselves weren’t even in, the plug got pulled. The company simply couldn’t afford it anymore, or didn’t want to. I suspect the final sales had come in on #15, which tied in with the Millennium Giants Big Event going on in the Superman books, & there was no boost, so that was probably that. I wasn’t keen on being part of it in the first place, it was editorial fiat, & at that time DC was so paranoid about Big Secrets from their Big Events leaking out I had to practically take hostages to even get a hint about the story I was supposed to be tying into. Matter of fact, I ran into my old pal Dan Jurgens at a convention, & asked him what the story was; he was writing the main Superman book at the time (but not the one controlling that particular big event) & they hadn’t told him at that point what was supposed to be happening in the story. I had to practically take hostages to get any details I could work with. I wasn’t surprised at the lack of sales boost. There was no attempt at all by the Superman office to let anyone reading the main story that the COTU tie-in even existed, though I think I was the only one of the non-Superman DC books that tied-in where the characters discovered anything that, while outside their capabilities, would allow The Real Heroes to deal with the threat. All they had to do was acknowledge it in one panel, but no. It was all very disappointing & frustrating, but not unexpected.

 

But it was a book that didn’t work & play well with the DC Universe in the first place. They’re investigators of the unknown, trying to reason out problems & deal with them. The problem with doing that in the DC universe, which we discovered from scornful fanmail early on & there wasn’t much choice but to ignore the problem, is it’s a universe overrun by magic & demons & aliens & ghosts & physics-denying superscience & what have you – & the entire population there is SO exposed to this – that if you’re in the DC Universe & you’re facing, say, a plague of zombies, you’d have to be a total idiot to say, “Oh, they CAN’T be zombies. People CAN’T come back from the dead!” Of course they can, in the DC Universe. So having a team like COTU there is basically saying “Hi, we’re the kids who flunked current events class in school!” As a longtime reader, I completely understand the appeal of the shared universe concept, but as a writer I find it to be a real pain in the ass, & at a certain point excludes far more, prohibitively more than it includes, & murders lots of potentially really interesting ideas simply because they don’t fit in with whatever rigid structures have been erected in whatever little house of cards a company forces you to deal with. My rather… mirthful… view of the cluster**** the DCU had become by that point probably didn’t help. I occasionally got Dan Thorsland in trouble by doing things like the Batman guest appearance in #11-12 (another thing I had no say in, it was an order from on high, though by that point neither company got that if you guest-starred Batman or Wolverine in a book it was less an encouragement to the market to try that book than a signal it’d probably be dead soon & a waste of time to bother with) & not only not having them spooked in the slightest by Batman when he suddenly catches up with them but I wanted, when they were finally introduced to Bruce Wayne at the end of the story, to have one of them say to the others “Isn’t he Batman?” I mean, they suss out secrets & pierce illusions for a living. Why wouldn’t they know? The Batman office said absolutely no way. I did the bit anyway, but without nouns or pronouns. The others rolled their eyes & said, “Let it go.” It was characterization, dammit!

 

Funny story, though. Around 2000, Grant Morrison, Tom Peyer, Mark Waid & Karl Kesel concocted this goofy “Hypertime” concept, which, near as I was ever able to figure out, wasn’t a parallel world thing ala Earth-1 & Earth-2 but a way for them to have their cake & eat it too by saying that sometimes contradictory & paradoxical stories from DC continuity, like, say old Dick Sprang Batman stories with Batman traveling through space, were in continuity but then they weren’t. Schrödinger’s back issue, basically. I guess it sounded like a good idea at the time. Was Kingdom Come the big launchpad for it? I forget. But Karl, who was writing Superboy at the time, eventually revealed the real first Hypertime story. It turned out to be COTU #7-9, guesting the original Challengers before sending them off again to save reality or something like that (the story got completely away from me.) So I, apparently, am the true father of Hypertime. Who knew?

 

    Billy: You had a run on Spectacular Spider-Man as that character was exploding, along with the industry. Can you talk about what those days were like when the industry was heading down that road to the implosion.

 

Steven: Business was brisk then, I’ll say that for it. Spectacular Spider-Man turned into something of a mess for me, though, due to Nightstalkers. Danny Fingeroth had asked me to do an arc in (unadjectival) Spider-Man guest-starring The Punisher, & though I’d always felt The Punisher was best served by keeping him away from the Marvel Universe & still do (I mean, let’s face it, if you’d probably lose when you faced The Rhino, that’s not really a playground your sandbox should be in) it’s not like there wasn’t a tradition there & there were some things I wanted to do. (Spider-Man at one point lectures The Punisher yet again about how naughty killing is & killing bad guys makes as bad as they are, etc., & he replies, “That’s good if you can bend steel in your hands, but what do the rest of us do?”… I have certain philosophical problems with the concept of super-powered beings as role models…) Danny liked the story, & asked if I could take over Spectacular Spider-Man. It was a curious experience. I flew to NYC for a Spider-book conference where we spent a very long day in a swank hotel divvying up supporting characters, which book got to control who. Eventually it was all settled. I fly home – I was living outside Seattle at the time – to plot my next issue, send it in… & get it bounced because a character who was put in the Spec stable is suddenly the focus of a major story arc in Web Of Spider-Man. Why didn’t they just give me the price of the plane ticket, hotel room & meals so I could go buy a new car or something if all they wanted to do was throw away money?

 

The first three issues, the Tombstone arc, I thought came out pretty well. Had a lovely bit with Flash Thompson in it, after Flash is injured by Tombstone & ends up in the hospital: he’s reassessing his life. Peter comes to visit, & is weirded out that Flash knows a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, he just can’t wrap his head around the idea that Flash freaking Thompson reads poetry! Flash then says, Peter, there are a lot of things you don’t know about me & you’ve never made any effort to find out. We’re not friends. We’re just guys who used to go to school together. I didn’t mean Flash thought they were enemies, though I know comics love to work that binary to death, but that there’s a lot more to being friends than what we ever saw Flash & Peter doing. In the long run I wanted them to become real friends, that was sort of the spiritual intention of my run. Never got the chance.

 

Like all Big Events of the day, the Midnight Sons office wanted lots of titles to tie into their Midnight Sons big event. Mark Powers was the editor of Spec, & I never really had any problems with him, but he was new in an environment putting tons of pressure on editors, especially new ones. I was asked to do a Spec tie-in with Midnight Sons, since I was already writing an involved book. I didn’t have a problem with it. Came up with a plot, ran it through all approvals, no problem. But for some reason, and as I said I lived on the opposite side of the country & had no special grasp of the internal politics of Marvel offices, the other editors pretty much snubbed the Midnight Sons event. Only one other book, I forget which, agreed to a tie-in. That was fine, it didn’t affect me at all.

 

Then I quit Nightstalkers. Suddenly I get a call from Mark: the Midnight Sons office had decreed that it was no longer good enough tie-ins line up with what’s happening in the major storyline that month, they had to line up with what was going on that week. Which, when you’re tying a monthly in with a weekly series, is nuts. Even more nuts is abruptly deciding to sabotage one of the only two books that even deigned to play along with you. On top of everything, it really screwed up the Spec schedule & instantly turned the book really late, something my run never recovered from. As was the case at the time, solicitations had already gone out, & changing the contents would render the book returnable, a virtually unpardonable crime from upper management’s point of view whatever the circumstance. Then editor-in-chief Tom deFalco gave Mark permission to do that, but Mark, who was also between a rock & a hard place with it, understandably didn’t want “turned books returnable” on his permanent record. That’s the kind of milieu it was behind the scenes. So Mark & I spent an afternoon cobbling together a new story that didn’t really make much sense & had a ridiculously unimpressive threat but sort of sideways but not really connected to Midnight Sons, basically just enough to keep the solicitation valid, & everyone involved rushed like mad to get it out. There was no time & no space to include any of the little bits I’d wanted in my Spider-Man stories (my own view of Spider-Man was locked in place by the Lee-Ditko issues) & by the time the two issues were done I was just tired of it. By the time we were working on the next issue, first of my last two-parter, I was getting art pages faxed to me at 1PM my time telling me I had to get half an issue scripted & back to them before 2 or we’d miss shipping. Somewhere in the few seconds between 209 & 210 Mark called to suggest maybe things weren’t working out. It wasn’t a secret. They weren’t. My enthusiasm for the book was dead & gone.

 

But that’s what the ‘90s were like. A lot of different tails wagged the dog. Sales were so good there was a sense the audience would buy anything, which was true until it wasn’t, & when it wasn’t it really wasn’t. When sales were good marketing depts., which basically were doing jack to promote anything that didn’t already sell because they didn’t want to risk looking like failures, took credit for the sales. The X-Men franchise at that point was basically a license to print money, the smell of the ink dragged millions into comics shops, & Marvel’s marketing dept. would routinely piss the hell out of editorial by claiming to management, which always holds creative suspect anyway, the name of the company doesn’t matter, the books sold because of the brilliant marketing. But books that failed were always blamed on bad editorial. As I understand it, the Clone Saga that almost killed off the Spider-Man franchise was originally only a few issues long. But when marketing saw the response they ordered it continued indefinitely. They saw it as a golden goose. Which it was but you can only drag things out so long before everyone gets sick of them, a lesson no one ever seems to learn. And the whole company tanked as a result of that & some other very, very bad decisions born of greed & stupidity. I was going to say almost, but, no, Marvel did die. The company that’s Marvel now isn’t the same company that was Marvel then, & I don’t mean that figuratively.

 

    Billy: Can you give an overview of 2 Guns, as to how you came up with the idea, the great reception it had, and also the transition to the big screen? I know many times things are optioned, but never see the light of day. Can you talk about the sheer ecstasy it must have been to see that happen?

 

grant6

 

Steven: It’s hard to explain, but sheer ecstasy wasn’t exactly it. From the outside it looks like things happen in a hurry, but from my side of things it was a couple decades or thereabouts of slow crawl. There’s a point at which things all become weirdly surreal; it quickly feels like it’s happening to someone else. But once it hits there’s an underlying giddiness that never goes away. It probably helps when you like the film that generated out of your work. It’s not really fair, or accurate, to view the movie as your work, though; it’s “their” work. I tend to view my part of it as having tipped over the first domino, not that I’m not proud of the result. It was an idea that came to me somewhere in the mid-‘90s, I just got a comical notion of a gang of mobsters completely composed of undercover cops all trying to bust each other because all of them thought all the others were mobsters. It was a screwball comedy. 2 Guns is still a screwball comedy as far as I’m concerned. A deadpan one. I tried selling it as a comic on & off for most of the ‘90s, anytime anyone asked me to pitch a new book, but no nibbles. Crime comics remain a very tough sell, for various reasons. There came a lull in work, so I had some time & this one idea – by then I’d whittled it down to two cops, for focus more than anything, working for different agencies & unaware they were both agents – that I really liked, so I just wrote it. I was the client. Figured maybe if someone read it, they’d want to publish it. Didn’t work that way, at least for awhile. Eventually I just showed it around to friends for their amusement. One of those friends was Ross Richie, at that point just some guy who used to work for Malibu Comics. I actually pitched it a couple times in pitch meetings I had in Hollywood. No interest there either. By then it was around 2000. Around 2004, 2005 Ross started talking about this comics company he wanted to start. Given the market at the time I thought he was nuts. Around 2006, when he’d gotten underway enough, he asked if he could have 2 Guns. I figured what the hell, though at the time there was pretty much nothing in it for me except the story would finally get out, which on a tiny handful of projects is more than enough. He had spent much of the prior decade working in Hollywood, & had made lots of connections & learned a lot about the business, & did have a vision of Boom! as both an outlet for “personal visions” & something that could generate movie projects, & he didn’t see those two things as mutually exclusive. He loved the story – I don’t think 2 Guns has ever had a bigger fan than Ross – but he did also see it as studio bait, though that certainly wasn’t my experience to that point. The comic came out in 2007, the collection shortly after that – another book that was largely ignored on the stands but that wasn’t unexpected – & the trade the following year, I think, & then it kind of went nuclear. I know it ended up in a bidding war, which Universal won. And after that, it still took years to reach the screen. I think the option deal had been made on it by 2009, but it went through several cast & major crew changes, a couple different screenplays, & didn’t start filming until right before 4th of July 2012. Came out in August 2013. Came close to having the plug pulled two or three times along the way, for some of the stupidest reasons imaginable, but when people are weighing whether to spend tens of millions of dollars on something, it doesn’t take a lot to convince them not to.

 

By the end of this process, ecstasy wasn’t exactly the result. It was more like relief. Not that it was over, but that it resulted in something I liked.

 

    Billy: I’m a huge classic cinema fan (horror and sci-fi), can you talk about some of your favorite films/actors.

 

Steven: Oh, you know. Orson Welles, Nic Roeg. The usual. When I was younger I used to focus on particular actors & see everything they did – Malcolm McDowell, Oliver Reed, Donald Sutherland, James Coburn, Michael Caine – but it didn’t take all that long to realize even your favorite actors end up in a lot of movies that aren’t worth wasting time on. So I kind of weaned myself off thinking in terms of favorite actors. There are still actors whose films I’ll check out if I run across the DVDs at the library or like that, but they’re mostly dead actors: Dean Martin, Coburn, James Garner, Robert Mitchum. It’s kind of the same problem with directors these days: when all the films are either Hollywood Blockbusters or indie films, it’s hard to get interested in particular directors’ work. Especially since the indie film scene has largely turned into tryout reels for Hollywood. There’s kind of a deep interchangeability of most things these days, stylistically. There are a handful of modern directors whose work really appeals to me – Christopher Nolan, John Dahl, Guy Ritchie, Kenneth Branagh – who still go in for idiosyncratic styles & material, though Nolan & Ritchie, I can’t say most of their bigger budget stuff does a lot for me. For instance, I could live without Nolan’s superhero stuff, except for arguably The Dark Knight, which was pretty much gibberish but at least it was captivating gibberish, but put Memento, Inception or The Prestige in the player & I’m there. Many of the directors I’d call great aren’t even talked about anymore – Richard Lester, Sam Fuller, Peter Watkins, Nicolas Roeg, Jean-Luc Godard, Alex Cox, Lindsay Anderson, Paul Verhoeven, Ken Russell, Alex Cox, Alain Resnais – & the ones that are like Sergio Leone & Orson Welles (who directed the best A picture – Citizen Kane – & the best B picture – Touch Of Evil – ever made, as well as the greatest Shakespeare film, Chimes At Midnight, & in some ways the best documentary, F For Fake – so I’d probably have to claim he was the best, though through the magic of selective criteria you can make that argument for just about anyone) are so standard listing them sounds like you’re trying to score points.

 

Some actors & directors will still predispose me toward a film. If Guy Pearce or Bill Paxton are in something or Kenneth Branagh or Guy Ritchie direct something I’ll pay a little closer attention, but it still might not translate into watching. At best these days actors & directors are just road markers but it’s not like by following specific ones you’re likely to end up at films you like. Ultimately I think you get to the point where the only thing that really matters is how good the individual films are. The pedigree is an indicator, but a highly fallible one, esp. these days. But that has really always been the case. Ken Russell created works of brilliance, & quite a few stinking dungheaps. You have to pick your shots.

 

    Billy: Can you talk about having to put out some fires throughout the years? Case in point, when Steve Gerber was fired and you had to finish off the Omega the Unknown story in the Defenders. I know after he was fired he was interviewed and stated that he wouldn’t be a marching boy, so to speak (regarding Howard the Duck), and he was then fired. How tough is that sort of situation?

 

grant7

 

Steven: At the time I didn’t think about it a lot. Most tend not to when they start. Partly it’s ego, partly it’s necessity; when you’re struggling to get work, not to mention eat at least semi-regularly, while living as a homeless freelance writer in the (then) most expensive city in the country if not on Earth, turning down work for any reason other than overwork doesn’t get you very far, & even overwork is frequently not a good excuse, because you can always sleep when you’re unemployed again. The particulars of Steve’s situation weren’t very well-known at that time, it’s not like comics news had the immediate depth of coverage it gets today. (I should probably say breadth of coverage; for the most part, it still doesn’t get much deeper regurgitating press releases in most cases.) The creator-owned thing was mainly an issue insofar as creating & owning your own characters was the great goal. Omega was a weird case. Steve was writing Defenders when Omega’s comic bit the dust, & he said in the last Omega letter column – at that point a book’s writer often wrote the letters page as well; by the time I got there they were farming many of them out & I ended up doing many for a year or so, itself a weird experience – the series would be wrapped up in a future issue of Defenders. Then he broke with Marvel completely over Howard The Duck. For the next couple years, virtually the only letters The Defenders got were demands for the Omega conclusion. Omega fans were few but loud, rabid even, & everyone at Marvel knew it was a minefield waiting to happen. Ed Hannigan, then the regular Defenders writer, wanted nothing to do with it. I was expendable cannon fodder hanging around Al Milgrom’s office, & he explained the situation & asked if I’d wrap it up, to get it the hell off their plates once & for all, any way I chose, as long as it was scorched earth by the end of Omega with no possibility of resurrecting him. They just wanted to be able to move on. I figured, sure, what the hell. This was very early on in my career, I was also writing film & music criticism, various essays & things, like I’d been doing in Madison but now on a wider stage, comics were just one part of what I was scrambling to do, & I wasn’t thinking in terms of a long career in the field or that 35 years later I’d be asked questions about it. I didn’t have the slightest doubt Marvel owned the character & could do what they wanted with it. As I later learned the legalities of the situation in the ‘70s & earlier were a bit more nebulous than I then believed, because then we only had what we were told to go on & companies were more than happy to state point blank they owned everything when that was arguably only their legal fantasy. By the ‘80s Marvel & DC had gotten much more diligent with their paperwork, leading to a lot of talent really pissing me off in that era, because they’d sign paperwork saying the company owned everything but after they’d leave those characters they’d complain bitterly about what the company did to “their” characters. But you sell your character outright to a company, it’s not your character anymore. You’ve given up the right to complain, especially when half of your own output for that company consisted of making dogs’ dinners of other people’s creations. At this point you have to pretty much expect that any character you create for Marvel or DC, they’ll gut like a dead fish after you walk away from it, if they don’t insist you do it for them. It’s just the nature of the beast now.

 

I certainly wasn’t trying to disrespect Steve with Omega. Quite the opposite. It seemed to me, rereading the Omega run, that it was all leading to a fairly obvious conclusion. Steve’s comics were renowned for that sick twist that you really didn’t see coming, so that’s what I thought I’d try, to emulate Steve in that way. Nowadays I think there’s something to be said for audiences getting the payoff they’d been led to anticipate; that can be far more satisfying than any swerve. But then I started by trying to figure out reversals. My first thought with Omega, who was left as dead at the end of his last issue was: what if he’s just dead? And it kind of moved on from that. I wrangled a second issue from the story, probably could’ve used three. Steve had left a lot of unexplained dangling threads, so it got pretty cramped. Ed tried to cap it all off by giving the actual Omega corpse a Viking funeral in the sun in his first issue back. Me, I wasn’t trying to disrespect Steve’s work or the character, I was just trying to come up with something unexpected from it within the parameters I was given. It certainly made me hated by a small group for a while. There were also people who thought I was Steve writing under a pseudonym, especially since Gerber had given Steve Rogers the middle name of Grant during his Captain America run in honor of some childhood friend of his, but I don’t know how anyone at the time who could read could possibly mistake those issues for his work. He was a much better writer than I was.

 

Years later when I loved to Los Angeles, Steve & I started hanging out fairly frequently. He never told me what his intended finale for Omega was. Mary Skrenes might know. I think I know. At lunch one time I told him what I thought it was & watched his face drain, but no verification, so…

 

A few years later, Paul Smith & I were approached about doing a new Howard The Duck series. We sketched out six issues, did the first one. That was as far as it got. At that time I knew all about Steve’s claims & his lawsuit, brought it up when the offer came in & was told it was all over, they were just waiting for the papers to be signed & they wanted a new series out the instant they were, in advance of the (ultimately disastrous) Lucas film. That turned out to be a flat-out lie, but Paul & I were operating in good faith. Nowadays if a company told me that under suspicious circumstances I’d email the talent involved to get their take but then I didn’t even know anyone who knew Steve’s phone number. Despite the outcome of things, Steve probably had a case. Marvel didn’t challenge him in court, or go for a judgment, & I think they would have had they any rock solid proof against his claims. Instead their lawyers delayed him to death. That’s a popular corporate trick to crush individuals: keep things going so the plaintiff has to keep running up legal fees, & Steve’s lawyer wasn’t cheap, until they simply don’t have any more money to continue with. That’s what happened to Steve. He ultimately had to sign whatever Marvel wanted just to get out from under, & spent the rest of his life struggling out from under the debt the ordeal saddled him with. It was too bad, it helped strengthen Marvel’s claims to other properties their grip is arguably shaky on.

 

    Billy: Finally, can you talk about your work in the Young Adult novel genre, and what you have cooking for the near future?

 

Steven: The young adventure things spun out from Marvel work. I ended up writing quite a few issues of Spidey Super-Stories, which had the simplest stories & motivations imaginable, & very basic dialogue & language composed mostly of very bad puns. This was done in conjunction with the Children’s Television Workshop & their Electric Co. TV show. They also published Electric Co. Magazine, featuring a four page Spidey adventure every issue. I ended up doing that as well, & frequently had to go to their offices in Lincoln Center to discuss the stories with the magazine’s editor, Pat Fortunado. We had a really good working relationship. Pat eventually moved on from that job & partnered with another woman as book packagers, & Pat asked if I were interested in writing novels for them. It was a hot market at the time. I think the original plan was all kinds of series, but their company quickly found the most eager markets were for young adult adventures. The first thing they came up with was a series called Race Against Time, about a suburban kid who’s initially resentful of being babysat by his uncle when his parents are away, but it turns out his uncle is the world’s greatest secret agent & the kid ends up having to go on missions with him but they always have to succeed & get back before the parents get home, because they don’t know any of this. I didn’t have anything to do with creating it, but I had a bad habit with these things of writing one of the early novels & inserting my own little weird innovations & interpretations – just entertaining myself, really – that they’d then replicate in the other books. The same thing happened with The Hardy Boys Casefiles, the next thing I worked on for them. That was an educational experience. Race Against Time was very early ‘80s, I think. I wrote two of those. Hardy Boys Casefiles – a modernized (for the ‘80s) version of the ‘30s classic – ran from ’83-’92 or so. I wrote seven or eight of those. It was for Bantam Books. They originally wanted an edgy “two boy war against crime” type of thing, which was right up my alley, & the first one I wrote started with a runaway Frank Hardy, hungry & homeless, joining a religious cult. That was the tone of the stuff, impinging on real world events in ways the old books didn’t. It was a bit shocking even for me. The Hardys weren’t averse to using weapons or seriously injuring bad guys. It was what the publisher asked for. That was how it started out. Before long, the Hardys’ “action van” that had secret panels in the walls lined with weapons & ammo, no longer carried those things. Originally they could use guns, knives & fists. I think knives were the first to go. Then they couldn’t carry guns, but were allowed to use guns they took away from bad guys. Then no guns at all. Eventually they weren’t even allowed to hit anyone. All you could really do was have them run around & yell “AHA!” every once in a while. I never heard that Bantam got any complaints about the material, but various advocacy groups screaming about “violence” on TV, in the movies, in children’s cartoons, in comic books, etc., particularly about supposed negative effects on children – basic Wertham crap, with about the same level of science combined with idiot assumptions behind it – & I suspect Bantam just didn’t want to risk being caught up in it. The books must’ve sold decently, though. They published them for over ten years. I’ve done a few other things over the years, but my main takeaway was that I wasn’t very interested in writing prose fiction.

Lots of things going on these days, but so much ends up being on the never-never it’s always a risk to talk about it. Paul Gulacy & I now have a non-exclusive semi-partnership to produce material. Our first project was a revival of Bill Dubay’s The Rook, from the old Warren magazines, that should appear from Dark Horse in late fall. We’re currently doing a short story for a small publisher called Advent Comics, & we’re creating original properties we’re currently shopping around. On top of that, I’m also partnered with a film produce, Shane Riches, to create new comics, film & TV properties. I’m probably reviving an old series of mine, Enemy, at Dark Horse next year, & am prepping a new series for Boom! I just finished up a crime comic for Legendary Comics called Cops For Criminals that Pete Woods is doing beautiful art for. Not sure what the release schedule is but you can keep abreast of it at www.legendary.com/comics. Have a lot of things “in development,” but, you know, Hollywood… When you’re freelance you have to just keep plugging at it…

 

I’d like to thank Steven for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to do this interview. He’s a scholar and a gentleman!

Comic Book’s Unsung Heroes: An Interview with- Steven Grant! Part 1

For non-comic book readers that are just into movies or new comic book readers that haven’t yet traversed backwards in time to discover what laid the foundation for what is now, you might not know the name Steven Grant. The hardcore, old fuddy-duddy (you know, like the comic book guy from the Simpsons) types like myself know him for the fill-ins he was constantly asked to do on books like Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, The Avengers, and so on. Or quite possibly his work on The Punisher or a couple of titles at DC comics in the 1990’s. Either way, you need to know his name and his work, because he’s a good guy, and has taken on just about every genre in comics and got the job done!

I had the opportunity (quite frankly I had some dirt on Steven, so he had no choice…just kidding!) to talk with Steven about his career in comics, and beyond! Some of the great relationships he has with other creators, and even working for Jim Steranko! Yep, this guy has done it all, and is still producing work to this day! Get ready, because this one is awesome!

 

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   Billy: Can you talk about your early days as a writer, and if the comic book medium was even a thought? Also, if you were a reader in your youth, can you talk about what titles you were hooked on?

 

Steven: Until my late teens comics were always on my mind. The first one I ever remember seeing was a Dell Lone Ranger – Tom Gill must’ve been the artist – at the barber shop my dad took me too. I was tremendously unimpressed. I was four or five. A couple of years later I was laid out with one of the childhood diseases that put you down for a week – measles, mumps or chicken pox, I forget which one. This was still back when TVs were too big to move from room to room, so my dad decided I could use some entertainment & bought me an All-Star Western, from DC Comics. I think it was #116 Image below, cover by Gil Kane), whichever one had the first adventure of Super-Chief. The book had a lot more long-range influence on me than I knew at the time. It was my first exposure to my all-time favorite comics artist, Gil Kane, who I was much later fortunate enough to work with & become good friends with. Which was really kind of weird, considering I was 7 when I first saw his work.

 

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But what really influenced me was a full-page house ad for Justice League Of America 5, “When Gravity Went Wild.” It screamed in huge letters JUST IMAGINE! The mightiest heroes of our time, then listed Superman! Batman! Flash! Green Lantern! etc. etc. have banded together… I had never heard of any of them, the whole thing was completely outside any frame of reference I had, but I saw that ad and I HAD to get that book. I remember being on tenterhooks for the remainder of the week, and the instant I was able I got down to the local Rennebohm’s (drugstore), where they sold comics out of a slot machine that was sort of a glass-enclosed spinner rack – this was when comics were still a dime – and the next issue was already out. I bought that instead. It was years before I finally read #5.

 

It was intriguing. The next comic I bought was maybe the most famous DC Silver Age comic there is, The Flash 123, the one that brought back the Golden Age Flash and introduced the parallel Earth concept that has tortured the DC Universe ever since. But it was cool. Had a brief bought with Superman & Batman after that, in Worlds Finest 130 & an old-school Detective Comics whose number I don’t remember, but found the Julie Schwarz books more interesting. Comics distribution was really iffy, so you could go ages without running across two consecutive issues of a comic then. I got JLA #7 then didn’t see another issue until #12, I think, whichever one introduced Dr. Light (image below). It was all very new & strange. Then I found Green Lantern #9, which introduced the Green Lanterns Of The Universe & maybe the Guardians – it was the first time Hal Jordan goes to Oa – & it was like someone switched the volume up to 11. After that, I pretty much read every Julie Schwartz comic I could get my hands on, and a lot of other DC Comics besides. Oddly, I was particularly fond of Sugar & Spike. Anything Gil or Carmine drew I wanted. JLA, of course. For a superhero fan that was the motherlode.

 

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I didn’t read Marvel at first. I remember seeing Fantastic Four #10 at a Red Owl supermarket while waiting for my mother to finish shopping. I thought it was ugly as sin (sorry, Kirby fans) & immediately considered Marvel comics second-rate. Until I ran into Amazing Spider-Man with #9, introducing Electro. Besides Ditko’s art being fascinatingly weird in a way I couldn’t get out of my head, Electro starts out as a telephone company lineman. My dad was a telephone company lineman, & even though Electro was the villain there was something oddly vindicating about the confluence. DC Comics were fully of things completely outside my experience but this was like something colliding with my actual life in a way I’d never thought about. I instantly became a huge Ditko fan, but, again, read all the Marvels I could get my hands on.

 

I read most comics, really. Notable exceptions were Dell Comics, which generally struck me as drab, and Harvey Comics. I didn’t like the Saturday morning cartoons, I didn’t like the comics. I know I read a few romance comics here & there, but not a lot of them. Classics Illustrated generally bored the hell out of me, it was like they went out of their way to avoid being exciting. I was Catholic, so saw a lot of Treasure Chest comics but I don’t remember a damn thing about any of them. Another company desperate to keep your temperature down.

 

This continued for most of my youth. I read a lot, collected a lot of comics. Green Lantern & Amazing Spider-Man were always the biggest ones for me, but I went through a lot of phases. But from 6 or 7 on, I was reading everything. I’d started reading novels and fairly lengthy non-fiction, stuff not aimed at kids, when I was 6. Comics were just part of the mix. By my early teens I’d fallen into coming up with characters & plots of my own, I was always interested in story mechanics & such even when I didn’t know it, & I did think about writing comics then. By the time I got done with college I wasn’t all that interested anymore. Of course, that’s when I ended up in comics.

 

The other huge influence was in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, when underground comix hit. People largely dismiss them as a failure these days, but they forget that prior to the Supreme Court obscenity decision that pretty much shut them down, they were phenomenally successful. Sales on Those Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers by 1970 left Amazing Spider-Man sales in the dust. They were an enormous breath of fresh air: sex, drugs, politics, surrealism, all kinds of material straight comics wouldn’t go near. They forced tons of changes. The Comics Code would never have started crumbling had it not been for the underground books forcing straight comics to try to keep up in the feeble ways open to them. Had the political climate not become extremely hostile to their survival, I believe they’d have put straight comics out of business by the late ‘70s. Prior to them there was already an air of rebellion brewing in comics, a shift from the repetition of corporate comics formula by things like Wally Wood’s Witzend, Gil Kane’s His Name Is… Savage, Ditko’s Mr. A stuff. Material that was near & dear to creators’ hearts. Much more irreverence, in keeping with the rising tide of discontent with many things we were previously expected to just accept about life in America. Around the same time, a number of fanzines like Graphic Story Magazine & Spa Fon shifted from the superhero worship that epitomized ‘60s fandom to a much more critical aesthetic approach I found really bracing. Undergrounds took it all up a few notches. I never lost my interest in corporate comics, but my interests in them shifted from generalities to specifics, to the work of certain writers & artists, & especially to newer concepts & styles that were clearly closer to the talents’ hearts. Once the undergrounds were buried under, the stress on corporate comics was somewhat lifted & they quickly backtracked to things they were more comfortable with, mostly soft superhero comics. By the mid-70s, comics were screamingly bland & programmatic, with a few exceptions. But even then the effects of undergrounds lingered. They spawned the “ground-level” comics like Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach, & several self-publishing efforts. By the end of the ‘70s, you have things like Eclipse Comics & Dave Sim’s Cerebus eating at the edges of straight comics, & though no one in New York saw them as any kind of threat, their influence was strongly felt on the ‘80s. But the late ‘60s/early ‘70s was an extremely interesting time for comics that’s very hard to explain now. Things were going on very little since has come anywhere near approaching.

 

Billy: I’d love for you to talk about some of your relationships/influences in the industry throughout the years, specifically guys like Roger Stern, Jim Steranko, Gil Kane, Greg Laroque, Mike Zeck, Warren Ellis, etc.?

 

Steven: (Roger Stern): Roger & I go back to the mid-‘70s, in Chicago. I grew up in Madison, WI. He grew up in Noblesville IN, near Indianapolis. He’d met Bob Layton, who was publishing a fanzine called CPL at the time. Contemporary Pictorial Literature. C. 1972, a Madison friend named Bruce Ayres (who later founded Capital City Comics, one of the first comics-only shops in the Midwest, which ended up having a big effect on the Midwestern comics scene) & I published a couple of issues of a fanzine called The Vault Of Mindless Fellowship, a line stolen from the Firesign Theater. Basically forgettable & with very little circulation, it somehow got known. Meanwhile, I’d connected with Denis Kitchen & had prepared an underground comic right at the moment the Supreme Court issued the 1973 obscenity ruling that pretty much killed underground commix, because it meant they’d have to fight obscenity lawsuits in every single jurisdiction, an economically prohibitive prospect. In fact, I was in Denis’ Milwaukee office when the ruling came down. Anyway, at the downtown YMCA in Chicago every month, there was a one day Sunday comics convention/swap meet. I went down there with Bruce, who was by then starting up a back issue business, & Roger came up from Indianapolis with Bob. The lynchpin was a Chicago guy named George Breo who was trying to start a publishing company called Windy City Comics. I approached him with the dead Kitchen Sink book. George was getting art from some guy up in the Canadian wilderness named John Byrne, so, in hopes of getting us to create something for him, he hooked me up with John & I corresponded with him for several years. John, as it happened, also contributed to CPL, & told me I should look up Roger at the next show I went to. I did. We hit it off pretty much right away. Bob too. Corresponded with Roger after that too, & started writing for CPL & it’s eventual short-lived sister magazine Charlton Bullseye.

 

Other CPL contributors like Tony Isabella, Roger Slifer & Duffy Vohland had already made the shift to pro. I think Bob was next, moving to Connecticut as art assistant for both Wally Wood & Dick Giordano. I know he was trying to keep the fanzines going, but realistically one just can’t, short of massive doses of amphetamines. Roger then got hired to be an assistant editor at Marvel & moved to New York. I found this intriguing, not because I especially wanted to write comics at that point – Roger & I mutually agreed I probably did not have the right mindset by that point to write Marvel comics in particular – but because I wanted to get the hell out of Madison. I started going to New York two or three times a year for a week or so, & Roger was kind enough to let me crash on his couch when I did. That’s what you did in those days, because nobody had any money. In April 1978, my then-girlfriend was going to New York over Easter to apply for a job, so I took the opportunity to go with. Fortunately by then Roger, who’d been promoted to editor under the newly born Shooter regime, had moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, making the prospect a lot more fun. I called Roger to ask if his couch with free. He said, “When do you get here?” I said, “Late Sunday night.” He said, “Be ready to write a Marvel Two-In-One (#52, 1979, image below- cover by Pérez and Sinnott) on Monday morning.” He’d been assigned the book, which was so late he was willing to get stories from anywhere available. Had I at that point been dreaming of writing for Marvel Comics, Marvel Two-In-One wouldn’t have been what I’d been dreaming of. But I thought it would be an interesting experience, so of course I did it. Because – by total coincidence – I shared a named with Moon Knight, I decided to use him (someone else I had NO interest in, name aside) & wanted to narrate it first person. The oddness of it appealed to me. It was passable but that’s the best I’m willing to say about it – my part, not the art – & thought not a lot about it after I did it. Until I got the check. It occurred to me that, even though I got the basest base rate available, it was still more money than I was making otherwise. So I decided maybe I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

 

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After moving to New York, though, I ended up crashing on Roger’s couch for eight straight months until I could finally find an apartment. It was a very bad rental market, I couldn’t even get really bad apartments. Eventually it strained our relationship, but Roger was always very gracious about it & there were a lot of ideas we chatted out there that eventually ended up in Marvel Comics. Forgive me if I decline to name any for political reasons. But Roger was always great. I probably owe my career to him more than anyone else, but anyone who hates my work, please don’t hold it against him. Everyone makes mistakes.

 

Jim Steranko: I wouldn’t really say I have a relationship with Jim. I doubt he knows who I am. I met him exactly twice, once in 1971 at the first con I ever attended, a Seuling July 4th Con. He ran an all-night seminar on writing comics that I eagerly paid $25 for; I think I still have the syllabus from the seminar somewhere. It was very good, but he spoke to me once during it & unfortunately I’d developed raging laryngitis and breathing felt like a flame thrower was burning through my throat, so I couldn’t really answer him & he moved on. He probably thought I was a shy little starstruck fanboy, which probably wasn’t far from the truth anyway. The second time we didn’t speak. It was at some other convention around 4:30AM. I was on my way to my room, the elevator door opened, and Steranko barreled out past me. He didn’t look at me, but he seemed bushed. Does that count as a meeting? But in 1980 he needed someone to take over writing the comics news section in Mediascene (or was it still Comicscene then?) & someone, I never knew who, recommended he contact me. So the phantom phone call came in, & there’s Steranko asking me to work for him. It was like getting a phone call from the President. You just say yes, sir, whatever you need, sir. Of course, as usual, I needed the money too. I did that for half a year or so. He decided to eliminate comics coverage sometime in ’81, but that was okay with me. Writing comics news gets pretty damn boring pretty quickly, & at that point there wasn’t a lot different going on. A couple of years later, things started exploding. I did talk to him on the phone fairly regularly; I ended up being who told him John Lennon had been murdered, & that hit him very hard. But I haven’t spoken to him since. He was always very nice to me, but it was employer-employee. I do regret I couldn’t finesse it into some other gig, but I can honestly say there was a time when Jim Steranko took my calls.

 

Mike Zeck: I’d say Mike’s probably one of my best friends in comics, but we really didn’t know each other before The Punisher. I’d first pitched that story to Marvel in 1976. It was another convention, over Christmas-New Year’s Week in New York City. Bob Layton found out I was going, & said I should stay with CPL alumnus Duffy Vohland, though I had never met him. Bob set it up. Duffy was immediately welcoming, more than happy to let me stay. He was great. But it came with a condition. He worked in production at Marvel, & he wanted me to pitch comics to Marvel. My interest was low at the time, but he insisted so I said okay. On his advice, I looked for characters I liked that they weren’t doing any specific with at the time, so one day while he was at work I sat in his kitchen typing up proposals for The Punisher, The Black Knight & I forget what the third one was. Marv Wolfman was editor-in-chief at the time – he doesn’t remember this at all, but why should he? – & since it was the dead week where very few people came in, I ended up in his office, again from Duffy’s machinations, the next day. Marv pretty much read them over, then told me they weren’t looking for anything then. It didn’t break my heart. Not sure what I’d have done had he accepted them. Duffy was disappointed, of course. I had a good time at the con & went home.

 

But I liked the Punisher & Black Knight stories, & when I started working for Marvel a couple of years later I tried pitching them again. The Black Knight, set at the time of the Crusades, I sold to Al Milgrom’s office almost instantly, though it ultimately didn’t see print until Marvel Fanfare #52-54 sometime in the ‘90s, & the intended conclusion to the whole long series pitch saw print in rather masticated form in Avengers 225-6. But the Punisher I couldn’t sell to anyone. No one wanted anything to do with it. I don’t recall whether I’d met Mike or not, but we’d previously worked together on Marvel Team-Up 94 & I really liked his work. It just felt like a good match. He was in demand, being the main artist on Secret Wars. Someone told me he’d finished that & hadn’t taken on any assignments yet, so, since I wasn’t completely unknown to him, I called to ask if he’d be willing to do a Punisher mini-series with me. As it happened, he & inker John Beatty were right at that moment in his TV room discussing what they should do next, & The Punisher had come up just before I called. We talked it over at considerable length & realized that we both pretty much wanted to go in the same direction with the character. At that time editorial policy was pitting the Marvel editorial offices against each other, with the concept they should be rivals with their own talent stables, & having Top Talent in your stable increased your stature with the company. Mike, coming off the company’s biggest book, was one of the Toppest Talents they had at that moment. I know Carl Potts, the editor we took it to, was interested in building an adventure line & had a fondness for the character, but I believe the prospect of Mike in his stable was the irresistible one. Carl still had to champion the series to get it accepted. I know he was told okay, but it was on his head. No one at Marvel besides Carl had any faith in the project.

 

But Mike & I hit it off. We’ve been good friends ever since, though, since we live on opposite sides of the country we don’t see each other much. We stay in touch, though. I’d like to have done a lot more work with him, but that’s comics. I’m glad for as much as we did. He’s semi-retired now but I’d work with him on anything (cover below by Zeck and Beatty).

 

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Gil Kane: Let me start by saying I grew up idolizing Gil Kane. Everything about his work appealed to me from jump. He was one of the first artists whose name I knew & the first whose work I collected. His famous Alter Ego interview really started me thinking about comics aesthetically, really for the first time. His Name Is… Savage was a huge influence on my approach to The Punisher. When I became friends with Howard Chaykin, it fascinated me that he had been Gil’s assistant & knew him well. But I never met him. Several times Al Milgrom asked me to do stories specifically for Gil to draw, but they always ended up being drawn by someone else. At one point, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I discovered I lived half a block from Gil’s apartment. Several times when I walked past I thought about ringing his doorbell & introducing myself, but I just couldn’t picture how to pull that off without seeming like a stalker. I know I’m not fond of people ringing my doorbell & introducing themselves.

 

By ’93 it turned out he & I shared a lawyer, Harris Miller, in the days when comics sold well enough that talent could afford a lawyer. Harris put together a deal with Malibu Comics for a creator-owned/creator-controlled (supposedly; it didn’t work out that way) line, Bravura Comics, & Harris, knowing my fondness for Gil’s work, suggested we do a superhero comic together. So I finally met Gil Kane. He was reluctant, at first, until he realized I was not only very conversant with his art but with his commentary. That’s when I stopped being just another pretty face as far as he was concerned. And we very quickly became very good friends. After that we spoke at least once a week for the rest of his life. Again, I’d have liked to have worked with him a lot more, but it was an era where it was very hard to sell anything, when the market was spasming through severe contractions. I still got a lot of stuff I love out of it. He was a fabulous font of behind the scenes stories throughout comics history, & I learned tons from him. I wish I’d kept records of all the stories he told me, but Howard has assured me he did, so maybe there’s a book on the horizon someday. But Gil was wonderful; he was like getting a second father.

 

Greg LaRocque: I don’t know Greg at all. I never met him that I remember. He’s a guy who ended up drawing a lot of the stories I wrote for Marvel in the early ‘80s, but I almost never knew who’d be drawing stories when I wrote them. It almost never worked that way if you weren’t on a regular book, &, as above, often when you were told someone would be drawing a story someone else ended up drawing it. It was out of my control. The only times I specifically remember being told an artist would be drawing a story & they drew it were two Shroud stories I wrote for Steve Ditko (another dream come true) & a 4 page Moon Knight story for Kevin Nowlan to draw. Other than that… it could’ve been Greg, it could’ve been Sal Buscema, it could’ve been any artist off the street they wanted to try out. Most of the artists I wrote for I never met. Most of the artists I met I never wrote for.

 

Warren Ellis: I don’t quite remember how I met Warren. I know it was online, probably through Compuserve, which was a big comics community gathering place in the ‘90s, but however it happened one of us dropped an email to the other & we just got along. Warren, of course, was Mr. Online in the ‘90s & a decent chunk of C21D1. I don’t think any comics talent has ever more effectively mobilized the Internet to his advantage, & he did a huge service to comics doing it. He doesn’t get anywhere near enough credit for it.  It has become popular in a lot of circles to crab about him, but Warren’s such a brilliant writer. What appealed to me a lot about his work was how disinterested he was, still is, in creating traditional comics, even while he gleefully & often cold-bloodedly milks comics traditions. Around ’96, we tried to get a line of crime comics off the ground, it was something both of us were very interested in though we had somewhat different approaches, which was fine. The idea was both of us would do two books each. Again, it was during the big contraction, no one wanted to take a risk on crime comics. I only met him in person once, at a San Diego Con, but we stayed in pretty close touch for a long time. Not so much anymore, but we still talk now & then. I still look forward to whatever he produces. He’s one of the very few people whose  work I’ll go out of my way for. He puts on a good show of being a surly bastard, but he’s quite a lovely, generous man. He’ll threaten to have me killed now for saying that.

 

Howard Chaykin: I met Howard in ’73, I think it was, I believe at a convention in Toronto. He’d recently broken pro with things like Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser & Ironwolf, & was, I thought, the most interesting talent among a large crop flooding in at that time. I was very young, much too ambitious & naïve enough to think all I really needed was big dreams so I approached him out of the blue with the idea of adapting Dashiell Hammett stories into comics. Howard was very enthusiastic about that, had a notion of doing them in the “illustrated story” style pioneered by EC in their dying days, but, of course, I was never able to get permission from the Hammett estate so it was a DOA notion. But he was very friendly, & went on with his career. To his credit, I didn’t see him again for at least a couple of years but when I did he remembered me, & I think the next time I saw him after that was at San Diego in 1978, shortly after I’d made my first Marvel sale but before I moved to NYC, & he treated me like we’d been good pals all our lives. Once I moved to NYC later that year, we started going out for lunch fairly regularly. I will never say a bad word about Howard. He’s great, very quirky sense of humor, & a much more serious guy than he often comes off. No idea, really, why we got along, though I vaguely recall him saying something smart-assed to me & I smart-assed him back & he liked that, but that may be self-aggrandization substituting for memory. I do believe he’s arguably the most underrated influence on comics in the last 35 years; he blazed a LOT of trails. I certainly owe him a lot professionally. First Comics kept me alive for years, & it was Howard’s American Flagg! that really established them; losing him later was a loss, both in public relations & creatively, the company never recovered from. His Black Kiss at Vortex Comics led directly to Badlands, & Badlands became my entry to Dark Horse. There were other things in my career that sort of spun off from Howard’s; how things ended up for me would’ve been a lot different had he not been there. I don’t regret much but one of my professional regrets was that I couldn’t do better with American Flagg! when it descended to me, & while we’re still friendly I regret we haven’t kept in very close touch over the last couple decades, but it was a lot easier when we lived in Manhattan & Los Angeles at the same times. When he’s your friend he’s a great friend, & a challenge to keep up with intellectually. VERY smart guy. From my perspective, Howard’s work deserves all the praise in the world. What I’d really love to see is someone with money giving him carte blanche to produce whatever he wants instead of forcing him to tie into existing stuff the way he has in recent times. Pretty sure he still harbors ideas that can knock our socks off.

 

Archie Goodwin: Archie was great. I was never all that close to Archie – we didn’t hang out after hours or anything like that – but he was another generous guy, always very happy to let me hang around the Epic offices & kibitz. Had a series I was going to do for Epic but I couldn’t get an artist for it. I knew him a little but started working with him when he decided to introduce various columns into Epic magazine. Someone, I’ve no idea who, suggested me for a column on games. I was woefully ill-equipped & uninspired for it, but, as was frequently the case in those days, I did it because I needed the money. I haven’t read those columns in years but I’m sure they’re mostly gibberish. But I got along with Archie fine. Archie was very funny, very friendly. I wish I could say I was an exception but there were very few people Archie didn’t get along with. Of course I was familiar with his work, from the Warren magazines & his ‘70s DC work, especially Manhunter & the war books. Really, anyone who wants to write comics should study his work; it’s right up there alongside Harvey Kurtzman’s for mastery & precision. I wish my work was half as good as Archie’s. Again, he always liked me & I’ve no idea why but when he went over to DC in the ‘90s he started courting me to write for his books. I’ll say one thing about Archie: I only saw him get mad once. Know how in cartoons a character will get really angry & the sky will suddenly fill with thick black thunderclouds & lightning flashes all around as big booms roar? That’s what it was like. It made you very eager to make sure it was never you he was mad at. In that regard he might have been the single most terrifying person I’ve ever met. Thankfully I never experienced it directly.

 

Al Milgrom: Al kept me going in the early years. He needed someone who could fill in on any book. I wasn’t the only one but he ended up using me a lot. Again, we didn’t hang out outside the office. Al had a very down-to-earth workingman’s view of the comics process, & I think working for him was very instrumental in me getting it through my head what almost no fan ever wants to believe: corporate comics are about getting the work done. He wasn’t against creativity by any means – he encouraged it where possible – but the job was the job first & a creative outlet where possible. I ended up doing peculiar & interesting things due to him. The Omega thing in The Defenders; I was given that because regular writer Ed Hannigan didn’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. I’d already done a passable Defenders fill-in that ended up being published years & years later so Al might’ve had more confidence in me than I deserved, or I might’ve just been more disposable. Doesn’t really matter. Marvel had lost the Tarzan license, leaving the last issue, already written by Bill Mantlo & drawn by Sal Buscema, unpublished; Al was told to use it, & had me change it into an issue of Battlestar Galactica that I managed to prod into two issues, the other drawn by then regular artist Walt Simonson, the only time I worked with him. (I have a page from that story framed on my wall.) He brought me in to write a Hulk story for a guy named Joe Barney, a really good artist who worked for Continuity who could’ve been a major player had he done more, to draw for an early issue of Marvel Fanfare. Despite my personal disinterest in the Hulk, that ended up being one of my favorite stories. I have to say that while Al was always very encouraging, he really encouraged me by continuing to give me work. Eventually Marvel weeded out the fill-in issue concept (I used to joke Jim Shooter realized I was writing too many of them) & expanded the editorial staff so Al had far fewer books, all with pretty stable teams, so that professional relationship tapered off, but I’ll always view Al very fondly & I wish him nothing but good. He was the editor who used me when I really needed it.

 

    Billy: Speaking of the Punisher/Mike Zeck time period, and specifically the angle of the mob and really no established characters save the Kingpin and Jigsaw being in the book. Can you speak of that and the idea of the “Trust?”

 

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Steven: That all came from my original concept of The Punisher (image above is issue #2 from the 1986 limited series- cover by Zeck and Beatty), from the ’76 pitch. The Punisher is a “real world” character, he just doesn’t fit well into the Marvel Universe. Mike agreed with me, that was one of the points we synced on when we began talking about the character. When it comes down to it, he’s an ordinary guy with a few exceptional skills, he’s not a superhero. So we wanted in the mini to strip him of his corny accoutrements as much as possible. No more war wagon, no more rubber bullets. We felt the reader should feel The Punisher plays for keeps – if he isn’t playing for keeps, he’s just a joke, & the character only works if you don’t perceive him as a joke. (That was the last bit in Return To Big Nothing: “They laugh at the law. But they don’t laugh at me.” At least not for long.) We felt it upped the ante on him if he didn’t have lots of resources; it made him have to be more resourceful. The Trust was a matter of contrast. You see The Punisher going around assassinating figures he tags as detrimental to the workings of society, if you’re in one of those groups that wants to reorganize society to your own preferences & you’re not averse to a little .45 caliber surgery to achieve your ends, you’re likely to start thinking The Punisher’s on your wavelength. Thing is, though, he isn’t. So I introduced The Trust to demonstrate that. Ultimately all organizations are, for good or bad, pursuing political agendas. The Punisher isn’t. He’s fighting a war, & he’s not someone who’s interested in explaining himself or asking permission. He’s not interested in power. He’s not going to take someone’s orders on who to kill or to spare. The way The Punisher stays alive is to trust no one but himself. When he finds corruption he’s going to cut it out, if possible. Anyone else is subject to corruption; anyone else won’t see the world the way he does, they’re just interpreting it, considerably upping the chances they’re getting it wrong. The Trust, in fact, views him as little more than a useful tool to destabilize something they believe they can turn to their advantage. So they were there mainly to reinforce the idea of The Punisher as a solo act, not subject to what would theoretically be very attractive seduction, especially when they can provide him with absolutely everything he’d ever need to prosecute his “war”… except autonomy.

 

Of course, the instant Marvel “takes back” The Punisher they give him back the War Wagon, and give him a support team…

 

Funny bit about The Trust. That name was a last minute replacement. They were originally The Order, a bald-faced name to firmly establish what they were all about. Right before I handed in the script, news reports came out about the Feds raiding the… was it Arkansas?… compound of a violent neo-Nazis white supremacist group called… The Order. So I thought it best not to use the name.

 

As for the Kingpin & Jigsaw. In the prison story, we wanted him to face a character he had an established history with. Problem was… there wasn’t anyone but Jigsaw. Neither Mike nor I had any love for Jigsaw but he was all there was. Once he got out of prison, we couldn’t really ignore the Kingpin, since he was the Marvel Universe epitome of everything he was against, & we had to pay at least lip service to the Greater Marvel World. So, as with the “origin story” in the first issue, we got past that as quickly as possible. Made for a good bit, I thought.

 

    Billy: You were also a part of Marvel’s first limited series, Contest of Champions! How did that come to pass?

 

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Steven: Marvel had decided to do specials that tied in with the 1980 Olympics, a couple of giant format books ala Superman Vs. Spider-Man. The first was for a Hulk/Spider-Man story for the Winter Olympics. Bill Mantlo was the main writer on that but he had so much work he tapped me to co-write it with him. Al may have been behind that too, I forget. The Summer Olympics book was to be a “competition” between all sorts of international Marvel heroes. Bill was tapped to write that too, & again he tapped me, along with Mark Gruenwald, to help him with it. One problem he faced was that the international hero base in Marvel was not that broad. He needed a bunch of new characters created. I came up with the Frenchman Le Peregrine & the Aussie Talisman. I know Mark’s girlfriend came up with Sabra, Mark did Shamrock & the Arabian Knight. I forget what other characters there were. We all sat around Bill’s place for a night concocting Defensor because we had no South Americans, but that character’s conquistador motif always made me cringe; I’m not a South America expert but I doubt that’s an aspect of their history they celebrate overmuch. (Comics have always had something of a blind spot for that sort of cultural nuance.) Mark & I concocted a plot for the story, naïvely deciding it would be great to come up with new combinations rather than the really obvious battles that everyone would expect. That elicited a dull thud from Marvel editorial, & Bill replotted the entire thing & dialogued it all himself. So my real contribution to it, aside from input in the very loose structure of the story, was those two characters, plus finding the name for Defensor. I didn’t really have a lot to do with it, nor did Mark. They brought in John Romita Jr. to draw it, that might’ve been his first major job.

 

Then Moscow sent troops into Afghanistan. In response Jimmy Carter pulled us out of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Marvel had to bury the book. A couple of years later Marvel finally decided to dip its toe into mini-series. This was something I’d been lobbying for since I started there, as independent companies had been publishing them & I thought the format was the future of comics, not that anybody listened to me. As Marvel Super-Heroes At The 1980 Summer Olympics or whatever it was called was collecting dust in a drawer, pretty sure it was Jim Shooter who decided to split it into three issues & try out the format with what was ultimately titled Contest Of Champions. Not really to anyone’s surprise – if you saw Marvel mail much of it consisted of people just asking for every character to team with every other character, so CoC must’ve been like dying & going to heaven for a lot of people – it was very successful. Marvel kicked open the mini-series floodgates after that, & it changed the subsequent face of the business. Pretty sure CoC’s success also started Jim thinking toward Secret Wars. I’d love to take credit for it all, but I wasn’t much more than a functionary on the project.

 

And with that response, part one of the interview will end! Look for part two very soon, as we’ll discuss more Marvel, Steven’s work with DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and his boyhood idol, Gil Kane!

 

 

Cinema Sunday: Planet of The Vampires (1965)

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Title: Planet of the Vampires

Distributor: American International Pictures

Writers: Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Antonio Roman, Callisto Cosulich, Rafael J. Salvia,

Director: Mario Bava

Producer: Fulvio Lucisano

Starring: Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, Àngel Aranda, Evi Marandi

Released: September 1965

MPAA: UR

 

 

It just recently hit me that I’ve never reviewed a film by legendary Italian horror master, Mario Bava! This man created the horror scene in Italy overnight. His contributions to the genre are undeniable, and he has the catalog to back it up. A quick Google search will net you dozens of films he made, and quite a few you should not only recognize, but have seen. One of these films is Planet of the Vampires.

Definitely look up some of his films (a few are on Netflix as of right now, I believe), they don’t have high production values typically, but the atmosphere is pretty cool. Well, that’s enough for now, let’s get to the film…

 

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The movie begins with two spaceships heading to a planet that’s emitting a distress signal. As they communicate with each other, suddenly the view screen goes dark, and communications are lost. The crew has no idea what’s going on, and before they know it, the ship is pulled down to the planet by force. The Captain, Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan), is very concerned because his brother is on the other ship. As the occupants begin to wake up from the crash, they go crazy, and attack each other. The only one that seems to be able to keep his wits about him is the captain. He eventually gets the crew under control, and they’re visibly shaken, especially Sanya (Norma Bengell).

 

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The first thing they do is set out to find the other ship and see if they’re alive. The planet seems to be a barren wasteland and nothing but a mysterious fog rolling around seems to be even remotely recognizable. After a quick distress call from the other ship, but the batteries that run the ship are dead, so they have to hot-foot it to the other ship. As they make their way across the rugged terrain, they realize that although it looks rocky, there is also lava in certain spots. Once the reach the other ship, they find two dead crew members outside. A victim of a fight from the same madness, no doubt.

 

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As they enter the ship, they find a few more crew members dead from the same affliction or something worse. They do notice that there are three crew members unaccounted for, and that definitely raises an eyebrow. They bury the dead, and then attempt to get into the bridge of the ship. They can’t gain access, and realize they need a cutting torch from their ship. They leave one crew member behind to stand guard (yeah, he’s basically a “red shirt”). When the others return from the ship, he’s gone. They then go inside the ship to search for the missing crew member, and now, the bridge is open. Not only that, there were four bodies they couldn’t bury that they left in there, and they’re gone.

 

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Back outside the ship, the one crew member standing guard sees something that makes her cry out, and then weep. The others rush outside, but she’s basically having a nervous breakdown. As they run back to their ship, the dead that were buried rise up from their graves and look like they’ve been to hell and back. The crew decides that tomorrow they’ll begin to try to fix the ship to try to escape this planet. As they sleep, there are two guards posted. They hear noises, but only see illuminated globes floating around. As the Captain heads outside to check on the guards, one of them shrieks, and when the captain and the other guard investigates, they find the guy torn up real bad, and as he’s in his death throes, he insists that the captain of the other ship did this to him.

 

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As night goes on, more and more crew members get slaughtered, and eventually, we find out that not only are the dead rising, but that they are possessed by an alien life form that wants nothing more than to get off of this planet. And they do it by any means necessary! The engineer, Wes, believes that he can reignite the batteries, and get the ship going. He’d better, because if he can’t, they might not make it through another night!

 

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OK, here are my thoughts:

Along with another film I recently reviewed (It! The Terror from Beyond Space), this one is frequently credited with partially inspiring Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, Alien. Both of these films definitely gave him some ideas, no doubt. I think the budget was $50 for his movie. I’m not kidding, and if you doubt me, read up on the production of this one, you’ll be blown away by the way this movie looks compared to the budget. Very moody, and atmospheric, and the fog machines coupled with the multicolored lights really make the set look cool. The pulsing sound also reminds me of another classic horror flick. “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” has that ominous pulsating music to it as well, that sounds like the heartbeat of the devil himself!

The actors did a decent job, but nothing Oscar worthy. Sullivan and Bengell are pretty good, and carry most of the scenes. The space ships are a little disappointing, but again, when you look at the budget, you can understand why. The dark corridors of the ship were frightening, but the technology was very sub-par.  Bava certainly knows how to make something out of nothing, sort of like Carpenter did with his first few films (and Hammer, Amicus, AIP, etc.).

 

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Grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and sit down and watch this classic sci-fi/horror flick. Then look up more of Bava’s films from his heyday, you wont be sorry!

 

Click here for the trailer!

 

ROM #37, 1982 “In Days of Olde, When Knights Were Bolde!”

One of the most underrated books of the 1980’s, is certainly ROM! The title was created from a deal between Marvel Comics and Parker Brothers, in 1979. It was just a toy, but was elevated to cult status in the comic book industry. Why? Because of stories like this one. Fuse together ROM and Arthurian Myth, and you have one new, hot commodity, and another that is steeped in centuries worth of mystery and folklore. The tagline of the issue is…”A Tale of Magic and Mysticism in the Mighty Marvel Manner!” This is no understatement, and you also get the great action scenes of ROM wasting some Dire Wraiths, as well!

Not nearly enough credit is ever given to Bill Mantlo (writer). The guy wrote the entire series (all 75 issues), the Micronauts (another toy turned comic book title, and he had many runs on different titles, like Spectacular Spider-Man, Strange Tales (1987), Marvel Team-Up, and more! He is without a doubt the most under-appreciated guy from this era. This title was also fortunate enough to typically have the talents of the great pencils of Sal Buscema, and along with Ian Akin and  Brian Garvey, the art was great! The letters were by Jim Novak, colors by Ben Sean (two more staples from this era), and the editor was Ann Nocenti. Great cover as well, and the duo of Ed Hannigan and Al Milgrom knocked this one out of the park!

 

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Marvel Fanfare #5, 1982 “To Steal the Sorcerer’s Soul!” and “Shall Freedom Endure…”

A title that gets barely any attention but really resonates with me is Marvel Fanfare. I’m typically not a big anthology book guy, but this one always intrigued me. More often than not, you got solid creators, great characters, and some awesome wrap-around covers! The stories also seemed to be quirky in some way, but not off-putting in any way. Take this issue for example. You get two stories, the first being a Dr. Strange and Clea adventure, as Nicodemus has returned, and threatens to usurp the Doc as the supreme magical being in the universe! The second tale is one that shows Cap and Bucky in a battle during WWII. Not your typical battle though, and by the end, we get to see Cap in a Nazi uniform beating on a Nazi wearing his costume!

The cover is one that is fascinating, and we have Marshall Rogers and P. Craig Russell to thank for that! Both men have worked on the character of Dr. Strange before, and this is another feather in their caps! The story about Dr. Strange features Chris Claremont (writer), Rogers and Russell on art (pencils and inks, respectively), Bob Sharen (colors), Joe Rosen (letters), and Al Milgrom (editor, both stories). The Captain America story has “Ramblin'” Roger McKenzie (writer), Luke McDonnell (pencils), John Beatty (inks), Glynis Wein (colors), and Diana Albers (letters). Get to the shop and grab some issues from this series, you wont be disappointed!

 

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Cinema Sunday: It Conquered the World (1956)

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Title: It Conquered The World

Distributor: American International Pictures

Writers: Lou Rusoff, Charles B. Griffith

Director: Roger Corman

Producer: Roger Corman

Starring: Peter Graves, Beverly Garland, Lee Van Cleef, Dick Miller

Released: July, 1956

MPAA: Approved

 

If you put aside Hammer and Universal Studios, I think I’d have to give AIP the nod as far as movie studios go in the impact category. Their horror and sci-fi films were great. Sure, they didn’t have the biggest budgets, so the special effects weren’t the best, but the stories were cool, and they always found good actors for the roles. Whether it was “The Amazing Colossal Man” or Blacula,” AIP always gave it their all when producing a picture!

Speaking of pictures, you’ll love this one as any watcher of this film will tell you, it’s a sci-fi classic that must be viewed! The film isn’t very long, but does have a few actors you’ll definitely recognize. Well, without any more interruption, here’s the plot…

 

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The film begins with four scientists, as they’re keeping an eye on a space probe that’s circling the Earth. Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), remarks at how much the satellite cost, and that everything better go as planned or this project will get dumped. In a nearby office, a general, Secretary Platt, and another man, Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), is explaining to them that this satellite business must stop because the aliens will put a stop to it if they don’t. He vehemently pushes back, but they don’t care. Later that day, Tom and Paul, who are good friends, are having dinner together (both wives are present too). Tom takes the time to tell Paul that he’s made contact with an alien via his radio transmitter. Tom’s wife, Claire (Beverly Garland), is reluctant for Tom to tell him what’s going on, but Tom doesn’t care. He shows Paul his radio but just then the telephone rings, and Paul is called away to the lab.

Back at Tom’s house, he and Claire argue over the revelation about the alien. She’s very wary about this, but Tom is convinced the alien is going to help humanity. Over at the installation, the satellite lost contact with Earth, and they can’t figure out why. Tom then makes contact with the alien, and informs Tom that he hitched a ride on the satellite to Earth. Claire begs Tom to come to bed, but he refuses, and tells her he’s going to sleep by the radio. She doesn’t seem to broken up about it.

 

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The next day, the satellite crashes, and the alien arrives. He hides out in a cave near some hot springs, as to closer simulate the climate from its home planet of Venus. Suddenly, every mechanical device n town stops working. Apparently, the alien wants to create chaos, and knows this will get everybody crazy in a short period of time. We next see Tom talking to him again, and giving him a list of names of the most influential people in town (I guess the alien has the Yellow Pages?). The alien responds, telling Tom that he has a control device he can use to subjugate the populace with. Just then, we see the alien, as it release these bat-like creatures that have stingers that implant a radio controlled device when they sting the back of the neck.

 

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The first victim is the sheriff (Taggart Casey), and he gets hit immediately. Next is the general that runs the facility where Paul works. He attempts to hot-foot it to somewhere, but gets attacked by one of the bat creatures. He attempts to pistol whip the creature, and not shoot it…yeah. So, anyway, moments later, two of the biggest wheels in the area are under the control of the alien, and there are more to follow. Paul and his wife were on their way to town, but when their car died, they went to Tom’s house. He then tells them the whole story, and both of them are appalled. Paul tells him he’ll never submit to this alien, and Tom is not happy. Tom then takes them home, and the alien tells him that he must be assimilated.

 

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Back in town, the sheriff tells everyone to get out-of-town, and they listen. One man wont leave, and the sheriff shoots him in cold blood! Paul questions him about it but he only says that the master wants everyone out-of-town. The sheriff attacks Paul, but the alien tells him to let Paul go. Back at Tom’s house, he and his wife argue about the moral ramifications of this situation. Tom doesn’t care, and his wife storms off. Paul then heads to the installation, but is stopped by the general. Paul can tell something is up, so he whacks the general over the head, knocking him unconscious. He takes the general’s Jeep to Tom’s house and questions him further about the alien. Tom spills the beans about everything, and Paul swears he’ll fight this until his last breath, and storms off.

Can Paul stop this invasion by himself? Can he somehow rally the townspeople and stop this menace? The answers are here for the taking!

 

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OK, here are my thoughts:

Just seeing Van Cleef and Graves at this early stage in both of their careers is great. You can see the potential in both, and that they had big things ahead. Beverly Garland was also pretty good, even though her scene near the end where she tried to act all tough in wasn’t so good. The rest of the cast was very milquetoast, and didn’t really add much to the film.

The sets were very plain, and basically what you’d expect from a low-budget offering like this one. The music score was just mediocre as well, except for a few short moments. The special effects were decent for 1956, and you’ll really get a kick out of the bat creatures that the alien has at its disposal. Lets be honest though, when you see Roger Corman’s name attached to something, you know you’re in for a wild ride!

Definitely give this one a watch, because you need to be able to say that you’ve seen an alien from Venus, right (and the beautiful Beverly Garland – image below)?

 

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Click here for the trailer!

 

Marvel Double Feature #19, 1976 “A Time to Die–A Time to Live!”

As time marches on, back issues from the Silver Age and even the Bronze Age are creeping up in price. The scarcity of these gems is becoming a fact, and it drives the prices up. This is why I choose to go the route of reprints (the majority of the time)! Yeah, sometimes the colors are muddled with or the covers are tweaked, but I can live with that, as long as I get to read these marvelous books. In this fantastic issue, we get not only get a Captain America story, but also Iron Man! Both are classics, and have great creative teams behind them.

Speaking of creative teams, is there anyone that drew Captain America better than Jack “King” Kirby (cover and interior pencils)? Others have done fine work (Byrne, Romita, etc.), but no one seemed to really capture the essence of the character quite like the king! And who better to ink this story than “Joltin'” Joe Sinnott! Written by Stan Lee, and lettered by Artie Simek. The second story, was written by “Amiable” Archie Goodwin, the pencils by Gene “The Dean” Colan, inks by Johnny Craig (yeah, that E.C. Comics legend!), and letters once again by “Adorable” Artie Simek!

 

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Spectacular Spider-Man #85, 1983 “The Hatred of the Hobgoblin!”

I don’t have very many issues of Spidey stories from the 1980’s for some reason. Just a few scant issues, but issues that have a very good story and creative team behind them. In this story, we see the “birth” of the Hobgoblin! Roger Stern was the architect of this character, and he really turned up the drama and mystery during his run on the book. Some consider his run right up there with the all time greats, and after reading some of it, and listening to a podcast about Spidey in the 1980’s, I’d have to agree. The underworld/crime stories, and the presence of the mysterious Hobgoblin (we/Peter didn’t know who he really was for a few years!), really make this a memorable time for the old web-head! This issue also has a softer side, as Harry and Liz announce that they’re expecting their first child (little Normie)!

The story was written by the often overlooked Bill Mantlo (some plot credit to Stern?). If you look at this man’s credits, he was one of the builders that helped keep Marvel going for a decade. Between ROM, The Micronauts, and all the short runs and fill-ins he did, you’ve got to respect his place in the industry’s history. The artwork was by the team of Al Milgrom and Jim Mooney, and both of those men are also a big part of the Bronze Age (and Copper Age) of comics. With the colors by Bob Sharen and letters by Diana Albers, the team is in place. Get ready for action, and love (with The Black Cat) for Peter Parker!

 

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