Friday, August 31, 2018

RIP: Marie Severin

When it rains, it pours.

I can't say I ever followed Marie Severin's career closely, but she was a talent I took notice of primarily because she was one of the only female comic book creators of the 50s/60s who people remembered, spoke of, and was still in the business. Much of her early career was spent as a colorist and she became not only one of the few lauded female comic book creators, but one of the few lauded colorists in the business. Her work coloring for EC Comics in particular has been lauded again and again. I certainly appreciated the effort she went to recently to recolor some of her early work for the Bernie Krigstein collection Messages in a Bottle (that's Reed Crandall art above, colored by Marie Severin).

Marie Severin put in a lot of time as an artist on Marvel's Sub-Mariner and Incredible Hulk, although she seemed most pleased to tackle humour. Above is a cover she drew for Marvel's Tower of Shadows, one of the earliest places I saw her artwork.

Her brother John Severin was one of the greatest inkers comic books have ever produced. There were a few times where the siblings were privileged to team up on projects, such as the Kull comic above, penciled by Marie & inked by John. In interviews, Marie would frequently call those Kull issues her favourite experience working at Marvel because was working with her brother. She was a talented woman and by every account an extremely likeable person. Rest in peace, Ms. Severin.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

RIP: Gary Friedrich

Comic book writer Gary Friedrich has died.

Friedrich had plenty of detractors during his career, but I've never had the heart to be one of them. Sure, he wrote the fascinatingly-misguided Gunhawks series for Marvel and he was never well-suited to super hero material, as his turns on Incredible Hulk, Captain America and X-Men proved. He also struggled as the follow-up to Jim Steranko's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., telling stories which were visibly straining the efforts of artist Frank Springer to emulate innovative storytelling.

Yet Friedrich did have some talent when outside of the typical super hero format. He wrote all of Marvel's 70s-era war comics: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders and Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen; sometimes he did very well in that genre with thoughtful parallels to the contemporary situation in Vietnam. Other times he missed the mark.

His western work - outside of the aforementioned Gunhawks - had a bit more pep than most Marvel westerns and he toiled for a time on all of Marvel's big names - most prominently the super hero-esque Ghost Rider but also Kid Colt, Outlaw, Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid and the revival of Outlaw Kid. His Monster of Frankenstein was very good and he's definitely going to be remembered for his creation of the Johnny Blaze version of Ghost Rider, hands-down his most significant contribution to Marvel Comics.

Followers of this blog may recall I reviewed Friedrich & Ditko's Morlock 2001 and the Midnight Men #3 and rather enjoyed it; I also covered his Fright #1 and poked fun at some bad continuity in one of his Rawhide Kid stories.

Rest in peace, Mr. Friedrich.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Rest in Peace Russ Heath

Russ Heath died three days ago, 91 years of age. He was one of the last few remaining artists who worked on Atlas Comics in the 1950s and Atlas, as my blog archives will bear out, is a passion of mine.

Heath's earliest art is barely recognizable with his eventual style but he did find his footing extremely quickly. From the 1950s to the 2010s, he had an immensely well-honed style with very clean lines but plenty of detail. As an artist who worked for the major comic book publishers, his style of realism wasn't a terrific fit for the kind of super hero comics which overwhelmed the industry from the 1960s onwards but the few times he did delve into super heroes he made it work.

Heath is going to be best-remembered for his war comics work (particulary DC's Sgt. Rock) but I enjoyed his Atlas horror comics the most. His art had a way of appearing light and almost humorous about ghastly subject matter, but when the time came to convey something horrific on the panel, he always came through. The above from "On with the Dance" (Menace #2, 1953) was the first of his horror stories I read and remains a personal favourite; from then on, I always paid close attention to any story bearing his signature.

I've only made one trip to San Diego Comic-Con (and I probably won't ever go back) and was present at the 2009 SDCC ceremony where Heath was presented with the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame award; it was easily the highlight of the entire Eisner ceremony. After his name was announced, Heath took a very long time to shuffle up to the podium, accept the honour, and with little more than a terse 'thank you' departed. I visited his booth the following day to congratulate him on the honour and to purchase one of his prints, which he autographed for me.

With 60+ years of comic book art credits to his name, Heath has left behind an enormous legacy. Among that legacy are several pages of original comic art which is now in possession of my employers, the University of Calgary Archives & Special Collections. Heath is going to be remembered.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Finding One's Meaning in the Video/Movie Guide

Before resources like the Internet Movie Database existed, your best hope for understanding the length, width, breadth and height of filmdom was through one of many video/movie guides. They were ubiquitous, not only on bookstore shelves but even convenience store racks. They tended to range about 1000 pages and were printed on cheap newsprint with easily-smudged black ink. Depending on the design, you could fit 8-10 films on a single page as they didn't offer complete cast lists and only the briefest of plot summaries. Critical commentary was frequently limited to the star rating chosen by the editors, but sometimes they would pause to note something particularly wonderful about a film. Better still, there were those terse put-downs of movies, a devastating slight against the film which could settle the picture's reputation in your mind with only a single line of text.

I loved those books.

We had a few video/movie guides as I was growing up. I'm not sure when I began taking an interest in them, but around the age of ten I was leafing through them. By the age of twelve I would read them practically cover-to-cover. I particularly enjoyed guides which were sorted by genre; you could tell where the 'science fiction/fantasy' section was from the dark smears on the outside leaves, worn down from the hours I had spent pouring over them. Likewise, you could easily find the 'western' section by its pristine white pages.

Even if the book were simply an A to Z of film, there were particular places in the alphabet where I would pause. Having an interest in science fiction, 'space,' 'star' and 'invasion' were good places to search. I read with fascination about movies from the horror genre, always certain I would never have the stomach to sit through one. I began to have a sense of what exactly was out there in the world of film and what was considered good or bad within it. I didn't truly become a film aficionado until I watched my first Alfred Hitchcock picture, but even at the time, movies fascinated me. Renting a movie was still a novelty in those days, a rare treat. Boning up on what existed in the world of film gave me ideas of titles to locate at our local video stores.

Of course, there was one movie I held in esteem throughout my childhood, a picture which figured in many of my earliest memories. I can remember the sense of crushing disappointment I had when I made a point of looking it up in the video/movie guide one day. To my horror I read this:

Star Wars (1977)

I was speechless. 1977??? How could it be? I was certain I had seen the movie copyrighted to 1978. Perhaps I had simply owned a Kenner Star Wars toy with a 1978 production date, but somehow, at some point, I had believed Star Wars first came out in 1978. I compared one video/movie guide to another and each confirmed the fact: Star Wars had been originally released in 1977. A year before my birth. A year and a few months, in fact.

I was young enough at the time that I still played with my Star Wars toys and scoured used toy sales for other kids' cast-offs. Marvel Comics' Star Wars was the first comic book I began avidly collecting, attempting to build a complete set of issues. I didn't watch the movies too frequently (the only copies my family owned were those we taped off television in the late 80s) but we watched them at least once per year. At the time I made my discovery about the year of Star Wars' release, Star Wars was still an active presence in my life and would continue to be so until I went to college.

I realize now that I had been so willing to believe Star Wars had come out in 1978 because I was attempting to attach some higher meaning to my affection for the movies. It wasn't enough, apparently, that they were just good films - I wanted to believe Star Wars and I had come into the world together, that there was something verging on the spiritual about my connection to those motion pictures. And there wasn't, not really.

I'm hardly alone in this; certainly not alone in an irrational fervor about Star Wars, but I, like most of us, was trying to figure out my place in the world, a sense of meaning and purpose. I had no concept of what I would do for a living until after my high school years, so I frequently looked to my hobbies to define myself.

Even after I found my career, I flirted with the idea that my hobbies somehow revealed cosmic truths about my identity. There's a website called Mike's Amazing World of Comics which enables people to sort comic book releases by month & year. Visitors are encouraged to use this feature in order to find out what comic books were on sale the month they were born. How could I resist finding out? As a comic book fan, as someone who wound up being employed by Marvel Comics for eight years, surely there would be something there that would... explain who I am. Some piece of the puzzle. That I would click on the 'filter' button, see my favourite comic book story was printed the same month I was born and exclaim, 'Aha! It all makes sense!'

Okay, I was born the month Michael Korvac died. That's... something...?

There were some decent comic books published the month I was born. None that I would consider to be 'great.' And anyway, my favourite comic book story was first published when I was four years old.

It's a human thing to want to find patterns. Everything from astrology to numerology to fortune cookies are designed to appeal to our disbelief in randomness, our mistrust of coincidence, our willingness to find or invent purpose and meaning in items which are inconsequential.

I am grateful, then, to my family's video/movie guide for teaching me a lesson about my identity. If I had been born the same year as Star Wars, I fear I would have internalized that information and forced it to remain part of my identity as I grew up. It's good that I realized I was in error and rejected the idea. It's better to have your eyes open, searching for meaning than to center your life around a fanciful lie you want to believe. It was certainly easier for me to let go of Star Wars in college because I had disconnected myself from the idea that it held a place in my origin.

When my older sister turned 30 my parents were struggling to find something to tack-on to her birthday present that year, when they decided to simply buy her the movie which won the Academy Award for Best Picture the year she was born. Amused by this, I checked up to see what had won the Award in 1978: The Deer Hunter. I had never seen it but knew it wasn't exactly a happy film. I let my parents know that I expected them to buy me a copy of The Deer Hunter when I was thirty and they did - but I don't think I discovered anything more about who I am from that motion picture. Nor did I expect to. "This is this," philosophizes De Niro's character in The Deer Hunter, and that pragmatism has some weight. Movies are movies. Art is art. Art might help you find the tools to express your identity, but you and the art are not the same thing.

"See this? This is this. This ain't something else. This is this."

I've looked beyond popular culture to world events to see what was happening in 1978, what kind of environment I was born into, something which might give me a greater sense of identity. I suppose I feel like a blank slate; I no longer identify myself by the media I consume. How then do I define myself? Through my Christian faith? But how has my faith journey been unique? Having been born into a Christian home and never rejected faith, hasn't it always been there?

And then this year I finally found something which happened in 1978 that might help me make sense of my identity going forward. It wasn't rooted in popular culture or notable enough to earn a footnote in a newspaper. But it was rooted in my family and in faith.

Forty years ago, my aunt & uncle went to Angola to serve as missionaries.

This year, I decided I would do the same.