Bijou Funnies: The Conclusion!

Welcome back, fellow longbox junkies! In our last installment of the Strip Mine, I teased that I hadn’t gotten to “the good stuff” yet, so, without further ado, here’s the epic conclusion to “Bijou Funnies.” 

Marvel Fanfare #10 (August 1983)
By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the great George Pérez’s retirement due to health reasons. Here’s the announcement from Comic Shop News, which, since I am not much of a Twitterer, is where I first heard about it. 

It’s impossible to put into words how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of Pérez’s work throughout my life. I’m not sure I love him enough to binge my way through 200+ issues of Teen Titans, but if I were building a Mount Rushmore of my favorite ‘80s and ‘90s superhero artists, he and John Byrne would be locks. Of course, Pérez was so prolific, there’s plenty of his stuff that I haven’t read, but the sweet spot for me is his ‘80s DC work. His Wonder Woman run remains the definitive version of that iconic character, and Crisis on Infinite Earths and The History of the DC Universe are both sumptuous visual feasts I revisit often.

One of the best books I found at Bijou Galleries was this copy of Marvel Fanfare #10. Fanfare was Marvel’s gold standard back in the ‘80s. Even though it featured many of the same characters, it just felt different from the rest of Marvel’s books.[1] In its pages I discovered Michael Golden[2], Rick Leonardi, Ken Steacy, Charles Vess, and so many others. The series also had extraordinary production. Its bright glossy paper made the colors and linework pop in a way that newsprint couldn’t touch.

Plus, almost every issue had amazing pin-up galleries. I was so obsessed with these as a kid that I’d buy multiple copies, cut the pin-ups out, and tape them up on my bedroom wall in exacting grids. There must’ve been hundreds of them, floor to ceiling! When things got bad, I’d hide in my room and stare at them so long, it was like I really could escape into that perfect four-color world. 

Pérez’s artwork in this “cloak and dagger classic” is magnificent, of course. Just look at this splash page (inked by Brett Breeding)! The level of detail and precision is incredible. Unfortunately, Pérez only drew the first nine pages. The second chapter was drawn by Bob Layton and Luke McDonnell, both artists I like, and they do a convincing job mimicking Pérez’s style, but there’s still a subtle shift that makes me itchy. Even worse, the subsequent chapters (in #11-13), although all penciled by Perez, have six different inkers! The result is a choppy mess of a story that feels stitched together.

The script by Ralph Macchio, which manages to be both dense and condensed, also doesn’t help. The first chapter includes a long Marvel Saga-style regurgitation of the Black Widow’s origin, a character summary packed into dozens of tedious text blocks. Wading through it, one of the things that stood out is that the Black Widow, despite appearing in hundreds of stories by that point, had almost no personality. She’s just a thinly-veiled Catwoman archetype, another sexy bad girl in a black fetish outfit. I mean, of course, she has a back story - a Russian spy who defected and joined S.H.I.E.L.D., etc. - but that’s it. She doesn’t have any real depth. Maybe I’m wrong, I certainly haven’t read all her stories, but based on Macchio’s recap, there’s not much there. 

Macchio’s script also does that annoying thing where the characters narrate their every move. Like, “Only one chance . . . gotta shift my weight to the other leg,” or “Have to somersault and try to arc my fall towards that water tower.” I know that style was more common back then, but by today’s standards, it’s just verbal clutter and reading panel after panel of that noise is a slog. And it’s particularly unnecessary with an artist like Pérez who’s such a master at visual storytelling.

Of course, you can’t talk about Marvel Fanfare without at least mentioning Al Milgrom. Most editors guide their titles with an invisible hand, hiding in the dugout like baseball managers while the creators take the field. And this is how it should be, but every once in a while . . . Milgrom was like a quirky and hilarious uncle whose constant presence defined the series’ identity. His self-promoting and self-deprecating “Editori-Als” that opened each issue - Kurtzman-esque gag strips with lots of corny jokes that only a true Marvel zombie like me could appreciate - added just the right dose of levity and humor. It’s obvious that Milgrom loved this series (he even drew himself in the cornerbox!) and decades later his exuberant spirit lives on.

The Black Hood #1-2 (Archie Comics, 1983)

First impression: Look at this awesome Alex Toth cover! A motorcycle stunt, a gunfight, and bondage! Of course, this scene has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but who cares! 

Before I get to the comic, though, here’s a quick history lesson. The Black Hood is a Golden Age superhero who’s been on a ventilator for decades, but for some reason, nobody can pull the plug. First appearing in Top-Notch Comics #9 in October 1940, the character, with his generic yellow tights and black facemask, was a thinly-veiled Batman knock-off. Published by MLJ Comics (who later published Archie), he was created by Harry Shorten[3] and Al Camy (talk about a perfect comic book name!) to capitalize on the costumed crimefighting fad.

Here’s the gist: Disgraced former policeman, Kip Burland, took up the mantle of the Black Hood to defeat his nemesis, “the Skull,” a devilish green-skinned villain who framed him. Burland gained his rather unimpressive heroic abilities by “learning everything about science” and training with “the Hermit,” a pipe-smoking shut-in he randomly encounters in the woods.

At the time it was published, I’m sure The Black Hood felt fresh and exciting to the thousands of children reading comics, and the character was clearly popular, earning marquis billing on Top Notch’s covers from his very first appearance. But, 80 years later, these old stories are barely readable.[4]

Flash forward to 1973 when Archie Comics, through literal sorcery, conjured Red Circle Comics, a short-lived imprint which transformed a few lackluster Archie titles into horror and fantasy anthologies. As part of the effort, Gray Morrow reimagined the Black Hood and established a whole new back story for him, but before it was published, Red Circle folded. Morrow’s new origin story was shelved until 1979 when it was finally released in Archie’s Super Hero Comics Digest Magazine #2.[5]

A few years later, in 1983, Archie rebooted Red Circle Comics and this time three issues of The Black Hood saw print.[6] [7] This new version of the character was the nephew of the original (though, confusingly, he has the same name), but since this was the ‘80s, when anti-heroes were the funnybook personality du jour, this Kip Burland was a gun-toting sociopath.

Morrow’s artwork is fantastic. A disciple of the Neal Adams church of cartooning, his figures have that same dynamic yet photorealistic quality, and his action scenes have a cinematic grandeur to them.

But wait, it gets even better! There’s a bunch of great back-up stuff in this first issue, including a six-page story illustrated by Doug Wildey.[8] That name may not ring a bell depending on how old you are, but Wildey was a major talent. I first encountered him in Eclipse Monthly where he wrote and drew an old school western serial called Rio.[9] Around the same time, Comico published his fully painted Jonny Quest stories, which you should absolutely seek out if you haven’t seen them. Wildey’s got a clean natural style that’s not dissimilar to Morrow’s, though he reminds me more of Russ Heath and Al Williamson. 

Second impression: Good lord! This cover is even more chaotic than the first one! But, with 11 hoodlums plus Mr. Burland all packed into a corner, it’s also a little cluttered. In a snide, handwritten interview, Toth blamed this on the “lousy coloring” by Barry Grossman, claiming that he “buried the damn art.” But Toth didn’t stop there, he also attacked the poor colorist, calling him “Dumb! Stupid! (and) Unthinking!” I don’t know about you, but that seems harsh to me. I mean, sure, maybe it’s a little heavy on the blues and purples, and the black frame also doesn’t help, but it’s hardly “a puddle of dark colored mud.” Plus, Toth is the one who crammed too many figures into the composition, not to mention his massive title logo which takes up a third of the real estate.

Like the premiere, this second issue also has three stories, two of which are unremarkable. The first is written by Gary Cohn and drawn by Pat Boyette, who you might remember from Dan Nadel’s Art out of Time. Though the story is focused on the Black Hood, the real star is his “retro cycle,” which is used for several Evel Knievel-like stunts. The other story is by Dan Spiegle, a journeyman who did some of his best work on Eclipse’s Crossfire series around the same time.

But, getting back to Toth, the real gem in this issue is his resuscitation of another Golden Age superhero, the Fox. Also an MLJ character from 1940, the Fox was created by Irwin Hasen, who Toth described as a “mentor/friend.” But, based on this tongue-in-cheek splash page, Toth’s approach to the character wasn’t just an homage to his old pal; this story was a statement against the increasingly dark tone infiltrating superhero comics. “My intent was to cite the fact that light, breezy (called ‘camp’, I suppose) fare just isn’t in comic book characterizations of ‘heroes’ anymore . . . we lost our collective/creative sense of humor!” Thus, unlike his claustrophobic cover, Toth’s minimalist “cartoony” style in this story was specifically designed to “keep things light – for fun’s sake!”

Check out the intricate mesh of dappled shadows in this panel, and the graceful naturalism of the Fox’s crouched pose. He makes it look so easy, doesn’t he? I could go on and on about how much I love Toth’s art[10], even if he does come across as a bit of a primadonna in interviews sometimes.

Surprisingly, given the mocking tone of his Fox story, Toth closed out the issue with this intense back cover pin-up. Look at that psychotic face! Those crazy eyes! With his six-chamber pepperbox pistol, the Black Hood is literally blowing away the reader! And what did Mr. Toth think of this drawing? “This is really up Jack Kirby’s alley – not mine! . . . The character wasn’t so great – costume, motorcycle jazz – extreme action all the time – but I did it! Pumped-up for it, best I could.”

So, there you go. Overall, there’s a lot of cheesy dialogue and unnecessary narration in these two Black Hood comics, but the superb artwork more than makes up for it. If you see these in the dollar bin, or even a broken drawer, grab ‘em! 

2010 #1 (Marvel Comics, 1985)

2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, is an adaptation of the 1984 film directed by Peter Hyams, which itself was an adaptation of the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke is one of the most acclaimed science fiction writers in history, and 2001 is his masterpiece in large part because of the timing of its publication right before the 1969 moon landing (also because of Stanley Kubrick‘s extraordinary film). You don’t need to go back and read or watch 2001 to enjoy 2010, but it helps if you’re at least familiar with the story since there were a lot of unanswered questions at the end. What was the black monolith that the Discovery crew found around Jupiter? And what really happened to Commander David Bowman at the end of the book? 2010 picks up nine years later with a second mission to Jupiter seeking answers to those questions.[11]

Since I only found #1, I held off reading this until I could get the second issue, but then I discovered that Marvel also published a much nicer oversized edition (in Marvel Super Special #37). So I jumped onto eBay and found a cheap copy, and I’m glad I did because not only is it larger, it’s got much better paper, crisper linework, sharper colors, and, best of all, the entire story is in one book.

Looking at this outstanding page, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Tom Palmer. If I were going to make a Mount Rushmore of my favorite inkers . . . well, that would be much tougher because, in most cases, it’s difficult to know how much of the finished art was drawn by the penciller versus the inker. Usually the penciller gets the bulk of the credit because presumably they’re the one who came up with the original composition, but with 2010 that is not the case. Joe Barney and Larry Hama are credited with “layouts,” which were obviously copied straight from the movie, whereas Palmer was responsible for the “finishes, inks and colors.”  

Palmer's meticulously detailed work on 2010 reminds me of Marshall Rogers at his peak. Look at that splash page of Jupiter again! The swirling clouds of colors and textures radiate the intensity of the gas giant's toxic atmosphere.

Because it’s two degrees removed from its source material, the storytelling is inevitably rough. Some of the transitions feel abrupt and the pace is inconsistent, with entire scenes edited down to a single page, but Palmer’s extraordinary work rescues this book from mediocrity. I’d put it on the same level as Walt Simonson‘s adaptation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Great stuff![12]  

Clint, the Hamster Triumphant #1 (Eclipse Comics, 1986)
The Dark Knight spoof cover hooked me, but once I realized what this actually is - a spinoff of the Adolescent Radioactive Blackbelt Hamsters, which itself was a spoof of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - I just couldn’t muster the energy to read it. Flipping through it, I will say that Ken Meyer Jr. and Mike Dringenberg did a decent job parodying Frank Miller. Maybe I’ll read it someday, but I doubt it.

Marvel Age #26, 42-43 (1985-86)

Marvel Age was basically a marketing catalogue, albeit one tailored to fanboys as well as retailers, so there’s no need to read these too closely, but skimming the checklists triggered wave after wave of nostalgia. Remember that John Byrne FF story where Doctor Doom flew the Baxter Building into space and blew it up? Or that issue of Marvel Fanfare he did (#29) with the Hulk that was all splash pages?  Or the Mutant Massacre? Or Michael Golden’s artwork in The ‘Nam? Or Secret Wars II (ok, maybe that one is best forgotten). Man, I guess I really was a Marvel zombie back then! I remember all of this stuff![13]

In addition to the preview checklists, there’s all kinds of Easter eggs that made these fun to flip through. For example, check out this Wolverine pencil sketch by the 21-year-old phenom, Louis Williams[14], who, despite having no professional experience at that point, was compared to Bill Sienkiewicz and touted as the next Gene Colan in the “New Talent Department” spotlight.

If you’re a Fred Hembeck fan[15], there’s several short strips featuring his trademark squiggle-kneed caricatures. Here’s his tribute to The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1.

Oh look, another random Brian Bolland pin-up![16]

And speaking of Howard, I’ll leave you with this: the esteemed Duck’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as envisioned by the one and only Kyle Baker.


NEXT: The Strip Miner goes to Dixie!


Oracle Presents #1 (1978)

Ok, I didn’t get this one at Bijou, but since we’re celebrating George Pérez’s career, a few years ago I came across this rare fanzine story he did. It’s early work, drawn when he was just 23-years-old. Written by Dave Lillard and self-published by his short-lived company, Omnibus Publishing in 1978, it’s a schlocky space opera featuring a generic character called Topaz, but, as you would expect, George put his all into it. Rather than dive into the story itself, which was never completed anyway, just look at these pages. Pérez’s mastery at composition and anatomy right from the start is self-evident.  


The Magic Order (2018-19)

Reading Mark Millar’s comics is like eating a bag of Fritos. Of course they're bad for you, but sometimes you just need that fix of salty and crunchy and you don’t care. It’s ok as long as you don’t ruin it by thinking too much.

So it is with The Magic Order. Here we have some good magicians and some bad magicians fighting each other with magic wands over an ancient magic book. Sound familiar? Millar’s not even trying to break new ground here. Even the dysfunctional family dynamic is derivative of Jupiter’s Legacy, with its selfish, angsty kids whining about their parents. Still, The Magic Order was better than the last couple Millar series I read (Starlight and Empress), in large part due to Olivier Coipel and Dave Stewart, who make the whole silly script come to life. With the entire Millarverse now owned by Netflix, don’t be surprised if, two years from now, this run-of-the-mill story is a massive international hit.

Oh well, I have no regrets. I’ll eat a salad and go to the gym tomorrow.

[1] The second story in Marvel Fanfare #10, an adaptation of one of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales, drawn by Gil Kane and inked by P. Craig Russell, is a perfect example of why the series felt separate to me. Where else would you see a story like that in the Marvel universe?

[2] “The Savage Land” story by Claremont and Golden is such an underrated gem. The whole Spider-man-gets-turned-into-an-actual-spider thing blew my pre-teen mind!

[3] Shorten worked under the pseudonym, Cliff Campbell.

[4] If you have endless free time, you can read the early Black Hood comics at the Digital Comics Museum. I read the first few but it’s not necessary. There’s little characterization and the plots are painfully formulaic. Although, there was one I kinda enjoyed in which “William Randolph Furst” and several other millionaires were transformed into babies and kidnapped. 

[5] You can read Morrow’s updated Black Hood origin here.

[6] Other forgotten MLJ characters like the Mighty Crusaders, the Shield, the Comet, and the Fly were also briefly rebooted in the ‘80s. 

[7] In 2015, Archie resurrected the Black Hood yet again, this time under the similar imprint, Dark Circle Comics. The first five issues were written by Duane Swierczynski and drawn by Jessica Jones’s co-creator, Michael Gaydos, followed by Howard Chaykin on the second arc. I haven’t read these but they look like they’re worth checking out. 

[8] There’s also a short Black Hood story written by Marvin Channing and drawn by Al McWilliams. The story’s forgettable but McWilliams’s art is pretty solid, very much in line stylistically with the rest of the issue.

[9] The Complete Rio was finally collected by IDW a few years ago. 

[10] These Black Hood pieces were drawn on the heels of “Taps,” maybe my favorite Toth piece ever!

[11] The only issue I have with 2010 is its outdated title. Like pretty much everyone, Clarke misjudged just how much the space program would deteriorate after the Apollo program ended. Most people back in the ‘60s assumed that we would’ve pushed not only to Mars but as far out as Jupiter by 2010. Instead, we’re decades away from those kinds of missions with no clear target in sight.

[12] By the way, if you want to see more of the Tom Palmer’s work, I highly recommend you follow his Tumblr blog. It’ll give you a whole new appreciation not only of his immense talent, but also the vast amount of comics he’s worked on over the years.

[13] I never read Steelgrip Starkey by Alan Weiss, but it looks interesting. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Apparently, the Star Comics line was also a big deal back then. There’s an entire article about Madballs!

[14] What ever happened to Louis Williams? It looks like he did a few issues of Daredevil in that lull between Mazzucchelli/Miller’s “Born Again” (which ended in #233) and the start of Nocenti/Romita Jr.’s run (in #250). He also drew one issue of The New Mutants, one Marvel Fanfare story, a serial in Action Comics Weekly, and a few other random fill-in issues, but that’s about it, as far as I can tell. By the way, that interim period of Daredevil (’86-’87) featured some outstanding artists, including Steve Ditko, Barry Windsor-Smith, Todd McFarlane, Keith Giffen, and Rick Leonardi.

[15] Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe is a dollar bin gem, for sure! Hembeck fascinated me back then because he was the only artist at Marvel doing that kind of weird parody stuff, at least that I was aware of. Now, of course, I can see that he was just carrying on the tradition of Don Martin and all those Mad magazine guys, but as a teen, he baffled and fascinated me.

[16] Technically this Bolland pin-up was the cover to Howard the Duck #33.