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Friday, April 11, 2008

Comics Legend Milt Caniff

No cartoonist influenced more of his contemporaries and generations of new artists and writers than did Milt Caniff.

After a stint on the strip, Dickie Dare, Caniff rose to worldwide fame through the blood and thunder adventures of Terry and the Pirates (1934), an exotic adventure comic strip that brought serious artistic merit to the artform.

Scholars believe that Caniff "revitalized" the style of newspaper adventure strips with Terry's world-hopping escapades, featuring a supporting cast as exotic as his famous dangerous women. Who can forget The Dragon Lady?

But Caniff did not own Terry and the Pirates. In a move almost unprecedented, Caniff left the lucrative strip to create another that he could own. Steve Canyon was a gamble that paid off. Caniff’s new creation brought the same flavor of adventure and impressionist graphic techniques that had made Terry so wildly successful. But this aviation-based strip was firmly grounded in reality. Caniffs vivid flights of imagination found a home only in Steve's infrequent dreams.

Begun in 1947, Steve Canyon never reached the heights of fame of Terry,which spawned a radio show, movie and tons of merchandising, but remains Terry's artistic equal.

The comic books that featured Terry and the Pirates include: Famous Feature Stories (Dell), Popular Comics (Dell), Super Book (Western), Super Comics (Dell), and Terry and the Pirates (Dell, Harvey, Charlton). Steve Canyon was published in 4-Color (Dell), Harvey Comics Hits (Harvey) and Steve Canyon (Crosset & Dunlap, Harvey, Kitchen Sink).

Many premiums featuring these two strips were released by Sears, Buster Brown, Canada Dry and many other companies.

Other trade paperback collections are available. Ask your local comics dealer for information.

Caniff's work deserves the highest possible recommendation.

Published over many years, these may be hard to find. Price guides or comics dealers may help. Comic book shops, mail order companies, comics magazines and conventions are best sources. Prices vary widely; shop around.

Michael Vance

Best of the West and Concrete, from 1997

Best of the West/$9.95, 101 pgs./various writers and artists/sold in comics shops and by mail.

"From Fort Worth to Deadwood they threw hot lead! Killers and robbers, who....loot and steal! And on their trail came a lone rider…"

Despite this exciting introduction to "Tim Colt, U.S. Marshal", riders in the Old West weren't really alone. "The Durango Kid", "The Ghost Rider", "The Presto Kid", "The Black Phantom", "The B-Bar-B Riders". "The Lemonade Kid", "The Calico Kid" and "White Indian" were just some of the cowboys from one comics publisher in the '40s and '50s, Magazine Enterprises.

These western heroes ride again in Best of the West, a new compilation of these old comic book hombres, available from Paragon Publishing.

I reckon you coyotes won't get much shut-eye readin' these rip- roarin' adventures. Tarnation, these stories are full of the language, trappings and settings that make the Western a genre. Buckaroos wantin' straight forward adventure, simple morality tales of prairie justice and little time wasted on characterization or plot twists will find it here.

Back when men were men, women were women and men preferred horses, artists also knew how to draw stories without a lot of fancy frills. These range artists range from outstanding to average.

As an added value, there is an extensive and excellent history of several of the radio shows and movie stars that were featured in Magazine Enterprise titles.

Best of the West is recommended for western fans, readers interested in comics history and for anyone who enjoys adventure.

Michael Vance

MINIVIEW: Concrete: Think Like A Mountain [Dark Horse].

Ron Lithgow was kidnapped by aliens who transplanted his brain into a rock-like body. This story of his struggle to adjust to a bizarre new life continues in one of the best comics published. Its one fault, an obsession with environmental issues, is overshadowed by outstanding writing and art.

Highest recommendation.

Michael Vance

The Two Faces of Tomorrow #1

(A Suspended Animation "classic" from 1997.)

The Two Faces of Tomorrow #1 (of 1311 $2.95 and 32 pages, Dark Horse Comics/original novel: James P. Hogan/available at comics shops and by mail.

Originality is a first. Innovation is looking at a first in a new way. Originality is as rare as, well, braces on hen's teeth, and innovation is as rare as hen's teeth.

Stories about thinking computers have been a bit long-in-the-tooth for several decades now, possibly even for centuries. So, is it possible for a Japanese adaptation of an sf novel about super computers to still have some bite?


In The Two Faces of Tomorrow the super-computers that run Earth are causing accidents. So a team builds a super-machine that can think, and test it in a confrontation between man and computer. Why worry? If things go wrong, the computer can always be turned off or destroyed, right?


Oddly enough, neither the art nor adaptation by Japanese cartoonist Yukinobu Hoshino is startlingly innovative. And yet, the whole seems greater than its parts.

A cliche?! How innovative.

Hoshino's whole strength lies in his tight scripting and pacing, and in believable characters. His plotting is precise and intriguing, and Hoshino's dialog is crisp and realistic.

Crisp? That's real original.

His greatest weakness may be that Hoshimo's simple animation influenced art lacks the realism needed to heighten the suspension of disbelief and create the suspense necessary for this type of reality based science fiction

Do his strength's outweigh his weakness (or mine)?

At $39 for the series, The Two Faces of Tomorrow needs to be exceptional to win wholehearted recommendation But its first issue shows so much promise that it at least deserves a sampling.

Michael Vance

Comics Legend Bob Kane

(A Suspended Animation "classic" from 1998.)

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a...a..."

A bat flew through Bruce Wayne's window, and Batman was born in 1939. He was the creation of Bill Finger, a writer, and Bob Kane, an artist.

Kane had started out as an artist in one of the first assembly-line comic book agencies in the early 1930s. He seemed more interested in the cartoonist, abstract style of art than in the realistic style. He worked on funny animal stories, and it is true that he lacked the talent of artists like Will Eisner and Lou Fine.

When Superman took the world by storm, Kane was asked to create a new superhero. He choose elements from the comic strip, Dick Tracy, in particular Tracy’s weird looking villains. Kane mixed in elements from several pulp heroes, including "The Bat." He was also influenced by the hero "Zorro."

But what came out of his pen and the mind of Finger was less like any of these influences and more like something very new and exciting. It was the first and only something new and exciting that Kane ever co-created.

Although Batman was the highlight of an otherwise minor career, how can anyone deride the creation of one of America's mast powerful icons?

Among his works are a number of funny animal characters for Henle, Fiction House, Globe and National (DC) publishers in the late 1930s.

Kane also created "Cool McCool" and "Courageous Cat" for television animation, worked an the Batman comic strip from '43 to'46, was consulted for both Batman serials ('43, 48) and all four Batman movies.

Bob Kane's work on Batman in the '30s and early '40s is highly recommended.

Some older titles are expensive and difficult to locate. Price guides or comics dealers help. Comics shops, conventions, mail order companies and trade journals are best sources. Prices vary; shop around for the best values.

Michael Vance

Comics Legend Gardner F. Fox

(A Suspended Animation "classic" from 1998.)

How many lawyers does it take to write thousands of comic books and hundreds of novels?

Gardner F. Fox.

How many literary masterpieces did Gardner Fox write?


He was hired at the birth of an artform that was more concerned with volume and sales than with quality. He gave DC volume and sales and a pantheon of super and genre heroes and villains almost unsurpassed by any other comic book writer or artist.

He and artist Jack Kirby are cornerstones of the Golden Age of Comics. With a handful of artists, he laid the foundation of the Silver Age of Comics. He also created the concept of a superteam of characters which remains a pivotal event in the history of comics. But was he an outstanding writer like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, or Walt Kelly, or just a common hack?

Gardner F. Fox was both. Plot-centered and weak in characterization, he was also certainly entertaining.

The bulk of Fox's work in comic books was published by DC and includes characters Steve Malone, Zatara, Steve Saunders, Three Aces, Starman, Sandman, Batman, Radio Squad, Capt. X. Dr. Fate, Flash, Hawkman, King, Cliff Cornwall, Gay Ghost, Justice Society, Pep Morgan, Spectre, Vigilante, Shining Knight.

For DC, he also wrote Cotton Carver, Wyoming Kid, Super Chief, Trigger Twins, Johnny Thunder, Space Ranger, Space Museum, Justice League, Flash, Adam Strange, Green Lantern. Hawkman, Atom, Spectre, Dr. Fate-Hourman, Starman-Black Canary, and Elongated Man.

In addition, he penned Skyman (Columbia), Ghost Rider (ME), Crom the Barbarian (Avon) and Dr. Strange (Marvel). He wrote horror for Warren and Skywald. This list is not all inclusive.

He also wrote short stories for many pulp magazines and more than one hundred novels.

The work of Gardner Fox is highly recommended for the young at heart.

Published over many years, some titles may be difficult to locate. A price guide or comics dealer will help. Comic book shops, mail order companies, trade journals and comics conventions are best sources. Prices vary widely; shop around.

Michael Vance

May 22, 1998 - Reviews on Myst & The Land of Nod

Myst #s 0 & 1/11pgs. $? and 22 pgs. and $2.95 ea.. from Dark Horse/words: Chris Ulm, art: Kirk Van Wormer/sold in comic shops or by mail.
We all yearn for a better world where life seems more intense, full of adventure and wonder. Good and evil are clearly defined, magic replaces science, and even death and war seem noble. These icons are the foundations of the ancient genre of fantasy.

Myst, the comic book, is based on Myst, the role-playing game, and does not stray from the conventions of the genre. It is an adventure begun in issue 0 "in a world entered through a book, where pages became the key to the journey.

That sounds like The Neverending Story.

It is an adventure continued in the next issue by Sirrus and Achenar, two teenage boys who enter the forbidden, super-mundane worlds of Myst against the wishes of their parents. And it is an adventure that ends firmly planted on the foundational conventions of fantasy.

That sound like it lacks originality, which is true of almost all stories. It sounds like that because it does. But, thankfully, the story does not end there.

Originality is not the only measure of excellence. Myst is very well written. It is entertainingly paced, characters are clearly defined, dialog is crisp and believable and the plot, although holding no surprises, is still fun.

The saving strength of this new series, however, lies in the art. It is jump-off-the-page gorgeous, reality based and dynamic. Its visual pacing is flawless, the coloring is excellent and adds an other-worldly diffuse lighting that is completely appropriate. Even anatomy and architecture are accurate. So, what more could a fantasy fan want?

Originality. And more issues of Myst.


Michael Vance

The Land of Nod #1 [Dark Horse]

The Land of Nod #1 is one of the best comics that you won't buy because it looks like a 'kiddie' comic. Let's see you recapture the innocence, wonder and joy of childhood like Melanie and her friends.

Michael Vance

John Romita, Jr. 30th Anniversary Special, published by Marvel Publishing, Inc., 62 pages, $3.99

How did I miss this one? Published in 2006, Marvel’s John Romita, Jr. 30th Anniversary Special is one of those publications that gets fans of comics and comics history completely goofy and giddy.

There are few more deserving of recognition, based on volume of work and important projects under their belt than Jr. This “salute” to his accomplishments is the next best thing to a hardcover book, such as The Art of John Romita, which covers his father’s career.

Featuring a timeline of his career from ‘77 to ‘06, a sketch gallery, a 16-page interview with Romita, Jr., testimonials from many other comics professionals to his talent, accomplishments and importance in the industry, a reprint of his first story done for Marvel’s American publishing branch, and more, this ought to hold the gentleman’s fans for some time. Of special interest to many will be the way John Jr. handled accusations of his father opening doors for him in the business. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me whether Sr. gave him a helping hand or not, though I happen to believe his son made it on his own merit. What matters is that he IS in comics, and the medium is better because of it.

No other artist in the world of comics can put more raw power into a single character. Jr.’s figures fairly crackle with energy, even when they are standing still. And though I’ve contended in the past that his art has lost a certain “flow” over the years, I believe it’s because his characters have gotten “bigger,” filling the page even more, making it seem that they may leap from a flimsy pamphlet no longer able to contain their power. That’s progression of art style, folks, and sometimes you lose one thing for something else. It’s up to the fans to decide whether they think it’s worth it or not.

Check out John Romita, Jr. 30th Anniversary Special yourself and see what you think.

Mark Allen