Welcome to the Strip Mine

One of the great joys of comic book collecting is longbox surfing. You know what I mean, standing for hours sifting through filthy, disorganized boxes, carefully un-taping bags of one cheap floppy after another, scanning the credits, flipping the pages, gauging the condition, and, best of all, chatting with other geeks who actually get it.

This column is pretty simple. However often I can, I’m gonna go to a comic shop in New York City – this time it was The Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan – and see what treasures I can unearth for $20.

I should state up front that, although I’m open to everything, my sweet spot these days is 70s and 80s stuff, especially magazine and oversized books. And not just Marvel and DC, but independent books from Fantagraphics, Eclipse, Pacific, Comico, Kitchen Sink, etc. Basically the more off-the-beaten path, the better.

So, that said, here’s what President Jackson bought me this week: 

Tandra by Chris Hanther

First impression: “Holy shit! These covers are hideous!”

Second: “Holy shit! This line art is great! This Hanther guy can draw!”

Third: “Holy shit! How is it possible I never heard of this guy?”

On the strength of impression #2, I grabbed all four Tandra books they had, including a heavily waterlogged, beaten all-to-hell, possibly-ran-over-by-a-truck copy of the first volume simply called The Tandra Collection.[i]

The Tandra series is a sprawling epic comparable to golden age newspaper strips like Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon in terms of its subject matter and scope. As far as I can tell, Hanther has self-published around thirty Tandra volumes to date.

This delightful character, referred to only as “the administrator,” is clearly a twisted version of Prince Valiant.


Even though it’s the fourth volume in the series, I decided to read Iron Cloud first because, unlike the others, this one is printed beautifully on thick stock paper with bright white pages that really highlight Hanther’s artwork. The others, by contrast, are printed on cheap newsprint.

Iron Cloud is not really a comic in the traditional sense. It’s a heavily illustrated prose novella. Its pages all have a consistent layout with the text and dialogue in the center framed by rectangular panels that illustrate some aspect of the action. The non-sequential nature of the images and text make it kind of a slog to read at first, but once you get into the flow, it’s not bad.

Hanther refers to his books as “illo-epics,” explaining that “This form of storytelling . . . is the best possible presentation for relating fantasy and science-fiction. The straight novel is limited . . . by the simple fact that the reader is unable to see at a glance the scene the author has in mind. . .” Ironically, despite their presence throughout Iron Cloud, the artist derides “long paragraphs of tedious descriptive material” for “fail(ing) to convey the full impact of the scene.”  

After Iron Cloud, I went back and read The Tandra Collection. The main difference between the two is that the first volume is in the traditional newspaper strip format. As expected, Collection gives some background on Tandra and its main characters. The hero of the series is David Galon (his name is a combination of Flash GordON and Prince VALiant), an average Joe who saves a beautiful woman from some street thugs. They have a very brief fling (it lasts two panels) but supposedly it’s true love, so when she suddenly turns out to be a Princess named Kenia who’s on the run from some unspecified threat, and is hurried back to her home world – yep, Tandra – of course David follows. That’s pretty much the premise.

Obviously this is clichéd fantasy stuff, but like I said, Hanther’s art is impressive. Here’s a few of my favorite panels from The Iron Cloud:

Obviously, Hanther’s a fan of, and heavily influenced by Alex Raymond and Hal Foster (even his signature is a riff on Raymond’s), but I also get a strong Bernie Wrightson vibe, particularly in the faces and inking style (which makes sense given that Wrightson was at the top of his Swamp Thing game at the time).

Anyway, this is exactly the kind of discovery I always hope for when longbox diving. If you want to see more - and there’s a lot more - check out Hanther’s website, or even better, your local comic shop. 

Bold Adventure #1-2

There’s lots of reasons I love collecting 80s independent stuff, but one is that a lot of them have obscure backup stories by well-known artists (everyone knows about Jaime Hernandez’s abandoned story in Silverheels #3, right?).

Bold Adventure was a short-lived anthology from Pacific Comics published in 1983. The issue’s main feature is “Time Force,” a nearly incomprehensible cosmic superhero story written by Bill DuBay with art by Rudy Nebres. It’s a Starlin-esque space opera[ii] about a mad god who tries to gain some power spheres to conquer the universe (where have I heard that before?). It’s a needlessly dense piece with the same stiff language that DuBay hacked out for years in Warren’s 1984/1994. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if this story was intended for 1994 since that series was cancelled after its 29th issue in February of ‘83.

Nebres’ art is solid, as always, but it makes a huge leap forward from the first to the second issue. His linework in #2 is much slicker and more polished. GCD lists him as the only artist on both chapters, but I suspect there was an uncredited inker on the first issue while Nebres inked himself in the second. Who knows?

But forget “Time Force.” The backup features are the real draw. In both issues there’s an outstanding tale called “The Weirdling” with art by Trevor Von Eeden and inked, on the second part only, by David Lloyd, an unlikely battery but one that works exceptionally well. This was around the time that Lloyd was working on V for Vendetta and his style is similar here, but it’s Von Eeden’s pencils that really make this story shine.  

Interestingly, “The Weirdling,” which came out nine months before the landmark Secret Wars #8, features a black shadow suit that’s awfully similar to Spider-Man’s black costume. Is it possible that Shooter and Zeck got the idea from Von Eeden, or just a coincidence?

The second issue has another backup feature by DuBay called “Soldiers of Fortune” (about a mercenary named Bishop Fortune, of course) with art by one of my personal favorites, Alex Niño. Bonus: the story is printed in landscape format giving it a widescreen cinematic feel. Check out this gorgeous splash page: 

This is nothing like the insanely cluttered mind-fucks that Niño drew for Heavy Metal or 1984 but a much more restrained version. Of course I love all that crazy stuff, too.[iii] Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these backup stories were ever completed, although there’s a third issue of the series I still need to track down. Supposedly there was going to be a fourth that was never published. Pity, but then that’s comics for ‘ya!

Marvel Preview #23 (Bizarre Adventures 2)

From Tandra to Bold to Bizarre, apparently I can’t resist a series with “adventure” in the title.

But remember my sweet spot? No way could I pass up this black and white magazine anthology. Pretty high grade copy, too. This one came out back in 1980 when Marvel was aggressively trying to grab market share from Heavy Metal and it’s basically a precursor to Epic Illustrated, which debuted a few months later.

80s Marvel and Epic magazines were a real mixed bag - part superheroes, part Warren horror, part underground comix, and at least two parts Heavy Metal.

Sounds like a publisher in the midst of a full blown identity crisis, right? But, as a fan, it was an exciting era in the history of the House of Ideas. Of course, the scattershot, anything-goes editorial approach resulted in a lot of mediocre crap getting published, but, like any anthology, there were a few gems, too.

First up in this issue is “Shandra” (no relation to Tandra, although “Shandra in Tandra” would make an excellent crossover), a sci-fi fantasy tale straight out of, you guessed it, Heavy Metal, and, like most of the pieces from that magazine, the story is heavy on exposition and light on character and plot. It’s really just a vehicle for Buscema and Jusko to draw beautiful women and alien creatures but, man, do they do a great job at it!

Joe Jusko’s frontispiece of Shandra, a bikini-clad snow vixen flanked by raging yetis, would have been right at home in Heavy Metal.

I could delve into the story and talk about its clichéd emotionless heroine who’s fueled by some contrived sense of vengeance, but what’s the point? You’ve read hundreds of stories in the same vein and this one is no different. It even has a magic amulet! Yet, despite Lynn Graeme’s hackneyed script, Jusko and Buscema make a pretty formidable team (though Jusko clearly did the heavy lifting on this piece). I’m so used to Jusko’s over-rendered paintings that this more restrained piece in black-and-white was refreshing to see.

The next story, “Annie Mae,” is by three industry veterans: Denny O’Neill, Gene Colan, and Alfredo Alcala. The piece opens with a two-page photo comic shot by Eliot R. Brown (interesting trivia: the models include Mark Gruenwald and Steve Skeates) and the short dialogue functions as a framing sequence for the main story. “Annie Mae” aspires to be an epic love story that spans eons, but in reality it’s little more than a snapshot of masculine lust pointlessly stretched across generations, and, like 90% of all time travel stories, the whole thing unravels by the end.

The next piece is a real oddity by Steve Skeates and Ned Sonntag. If you had to click over to Lambiek to find out who Sonntag is, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Apparently he was an underground guy who crossed over and briefly did some work for Marvel on Howard the Duck and The Savage Sword of Conan. Given his loose squiggly lines and lowbrow style, I can see Howard, maybe, but Conan?

Anyway, befitting the magazine’s title, this bizarre story centers on a 17th century magician who embarks on a mystical journey of enlightenment only to find himself transported to the 20th century and inexplicably transformed into a giant tooth. A giant talking tooth! However, rather than spread his great knowledge for the betterment of humanity, the shamanic molar is immediately lured into a job as a toothpaste spokesman. Sonntag’s inclusion in the magazine is evidence of the series’ eclecticism, and the peculiar premise allowed Skeates and Sonntag to make some minor satirical observations about the absurdities of modern life, but the twist ending was so painful, I audibly groaned when I read it. Still, there was something oddly charming about this story.

The real gem in the issue is an early story by Frank Miller called “Final Warning.” Also written by Lynn Graeme, the story, which is set in the year 2034, follows a man on the run from shadowy figures through a post-apocalyptic New York City. Again, not very original, but what makes this piece a standout is Miller’s art, which is clearly an homage to Bernie Krigstein. The crowded rows of thin panels, arranged like the keys of a piano, are straight from “Master Race.”

“The Fantasy Gambit” by Roger Stern and Stephen Bissette is a humorous tribute to the power of imagination. There’s not much to say about this one other than Bissette’s art is magnificent. He plays around with creative page compositions, and also experiments with photo collage and different ink styles. The piece would’ve been right at home in Taboo.

In the final story Gene Colan returns to illustrate “The Way of Heaven,” Mike Barr’s dense Eastern philosophy-laden script, but this time he’s inked by John Tartaglione and it’s fascinating to see what a huge difference inkers make. Colan had a very unique penciling style. His drawings were filled with rich textures and shadows and his work often felt like the graphite was applied with a brush.[iv] Alfredo Alcala’s faithful inks on “Annie Mae” preserved and enhanced those scratchy pencil textures but Tartaglione washes out all those fine details, drowning Colan’s drawings in puddles of muddy grays.[v]

Sabre #8-10

Finally, I grabbed three random issues of Sabre. Why? In general I love the production and color on all of Eclipse’s books, but to be honest, I grabbed these mostly for the covers. I mean, how could I pass up this insane colored pencil wraparound by Billy Graham?! The cameo by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow made me literally laugh out loud in the shop.

I only read the 8th issue, which is part six of a long story arc. The gist is that Sabre’s been shot twice by some redneck named Joyful who wants to be “Preseedent” despite the fact that he looks like Khan from Star Trek II dressed up as a cowboy version of Gene Simmons. Meanwhile, as he rides around on a horse, gloating and scowling, some woman is in the corner literally giving birth to twins, and it’s up to Woody and Mia (“Willoughby” and “Wilhelmina”) to save everyone. There’s also a gunslinger named Blackstar, brandishing the requisite eyepatch, dashing around stabbing people, and some other people riding on giant butterflies. Oh, and in the middle of it all, there’s this delightful little flashback:

It’s all very confusing and weird, but I guess that’s what I get for starting with part six. Still, nothing here makes me want to go back and read the first five chapters. Reading Don McGregor isn’t as rough as, say, Roy Thomas, but he’s not far off. He’s a good storyteller who has worked with a lot of great artists, but his comics are way too dense. My favorite work of his is Detectives Inc. which he did with Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan. My friend and fellow TCJ contributor who shall not be named tells me Detectives Inc. is “total garbage,” and sure, it’s tough to get through all that prose, but again, it was drawn by Gene Colan and Marshall Rogers, so I enjoyed it.

Like Bold Adventure, these books also have some interesting backup features. #8 has the second part of McGregor’s story, “There’s Always a First Time for Everything,” which has some solid art both drawn and colored by Kent Williams. Like Bill Sienkiewicz’s early Moon Knight stuff, this is Williams working in a much more tightly composed mainstream style than his later painted work on series like Havok and Wolverine, but it’s still excellent. The 9th and 10th issues have the first two chapters of a backup, also by McGregor, called “Final Transactions” with slick, detailed art and colors by Mike Hernandez (aka Michael Bair).

So, that’s it. Not bad for $20, right?  

[i] I’m 99% sure this is the first volume, but the numbering on the issues is confusing. For example, The Tandra Collection has C–16 on the cover. I have no idea what that means, but that numbering continues throughout the series.

[ii] The Starlin similarities probably aren’t a coincidence since Pacific also published his Darklon the Mystic the same year.

[iii] By the way, if you want to see something really out there, check out Alex Niño’s Nightmare #1 from Innovation, a dollar bin gem if ever there was one.

[iv] Colan’s naked pencils were so beautiful that, starting with Ragamuffins and Nathaniel Dusk in the mid-80s, his comics were published without ink at all. Also check out Bloodscent from Comico which featured Colan’s pencils colored by Steve Oliff.

[v] Colan’s shadowy artwork always looks better in black-and-white and Alcala, one of his best inkers (along with Tom Palmer and Bill Everett), is an excellent match. The two artists also collaborated on a few stories that ran in Rampaging Hulk magazine around the same time.