Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Heads Up, All -- New Blog Url --

Due to the latest bout of my being unable to post onto the blog -- an occasional but frustrating and increasingly problematic issue -- my beloved web guru Cat (aka Cayetano Garza, cartoonist extraordinaire) had to switch to the blogspot free hosting around 3 AM this morning.

This means that the new URL for the blog is
  • http://srbissette.blogspot.com,
  • or you can access the blog daily and easily coming in from the under-construction website
  • www.srbissette.com,
  • which I advise given the massive work Cat and I are doing on that venture throughout the coming two weeks.

    Cat's decision has already streamlined the process; I'd been having trouble posting images, too, of late, and that function now works perfectly. Thanks, Cat!

    I apologize for any confusion or momentary difficulties this new URL causes for many of you, particularly this morning, but the ongoing problems have just been too needlessly infuriating to continue struggling with the old URL. Set up the new bookmark(s), hope you find me here in quick order, and thanks!

    Also, Donna Lucas -- bless you, Donna! -- has provided a solution for the blog-post thievery, which I'll discuss later this week, once Cat and I can talk over Donna's revelatory email and proposed solutions. Chalk it all up to further meaningful work on the website, and enjoy.

    Finally, I'm happy to report a series of ongoing interviews are reaching critical mass, allowing me to post the early chapters of at least three of them (alas, my queries to Eddie Campbell remain unanswered, delaying an opening Punch I'd hoped for) this and next week.

    I'm opening this expansion of the blog's purpose and content with all-new interviews, and will ease into an occasional mix of new and older, unseen archival interviews in due time. I have some real gems in the SpiderBaby archives, including the first Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie Lost Girls interview ever conducted (to help promote the debut of Lost Girls in its initial serialization in Taboo, over fifteen years ago), and all that will be shared and posted here.

    The complete interviews, old and new, will be archived on my website after serialization here, with expansive new material and proper introductions to provide historical context.

    I hope you'll welcome these features as they reflect a new orientation to this blogging process and its critical role, realized at last, in building my own long-overdue website into something substantial and a worthy resource.

    Now, on to today's post, which was planned and ready-to-execute yesterday, before we were so rudely derailed...

    The War That I Never Forgot!

    The Summer of '61, The War That Time Forgot, and Why I Love Monster Isle, Part 1

    Chubby l'il Stevie Bissette, 1955/56, before exposure
    to the life-changing
    Star-Spangled War Stories
    "The War That Time Forgot" comics!
    (photo: compliments of Anita Bissette, my dear mama)

    Prompted by an email from my ol’ Mirage Studio amigo Mike Dooney, I just purchased from PaneltoPanel.net the brand-new chunky 560-pg. tome Showcase Presents The War That Time Forgot Vol. 1 (DC Comics, 2007) -- oh, what Dave Sim hath wrought!

    It was Dave who introduced and proved the commercial validity of this massive paperback 500+ pg. newsprint collection format (with his seminal, bucking-the-system initial Cerebus ‘phonebook’ collected edition), and thankful as I’ve been for his trailblazing since he introduced the form to the market (now a fixtures, firmly adopted by all participants in the market, though it was mighty controversial in its maiden voyage), this most recent DC collection of Silver Age treasures has me positively giddy.

    Mike Dooney
    emailed me to tell me about it, writing,

    “I've had you on the brain lately because I've been reading a copy of DC's Showcase edition of The War That Time Forgot which reprints all those dino vs. GI stories from Star Spangled War Stories from the '60's. I'd never read any of these and it's a hoot to see them collected all together. The action is unrelenting...tidal waves to earthquakes to dino stampedes all within a few pages of each other...and the funny part is that the soldiers keep going and wise cracking...wow, men really were men back then I guess. The art is really beautiful and I love the old school dinos. This stuff must have soaked into your bones as a kid because even the bushes and the lettering reminds me of your stuff...haven't spotted any zombies yet though, but I'm only half way through ;)

    happy spring!

    Mike's comments about the self-evident graphic impact of this Silver Age dino-gold are telling, including his observations about my lettering (gulp!). Yes, indeedy-do, this work shaped my own in ways I can't articulate -- but what the hell, I'll try.

    I immediately emailed John Rovnak at
  • PaneltoPanel.net, my favorite online retail venue for comics and graphic novels,
  • and in a little over a week John had a copy of the War That Time Forgot collection in my hot little hands.

    Revisiting this keystone of my childhood has brought many delicious memories flooding back among the sheer pleasure of revisiting these loopy Robert Kanigher creations, so lovingly illustrated by Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath and Gene Colan. These, more than almost any comics of my formative years, are connected to wonderfully specific times, places and desires. The memories are almost tactile: colors, scents, temperature, senses of seasons passing and endless possibilities, the feel and smell of four-color pulp and glossy, alluring covers.

    I was six years old in 1961-62, and it was a great year for comic books -- particularly if you were (as I was) a rabid dinosaur freak. Between my fifth and seventh birthdays, the newsstand seemed absolutely attuned to my obsession.

    There was the Dell Comics newsstand fixture Turok, Son of Stone, which debuted the year after my birth. The cover at left is the first issue of Turok I actually owned, and as such a cover with mythic resonance for me. I still have my copy, worn and tattered though it is! That was the first Turok I convinced my parents to buy for me (from Colette's on Church Street in , VT, the comicbook retail heaven of my youth); that acquisition was prefaced by the discovery of Turok in a stack of comics at a relative's house and a speedy read before my folks insisted it was really, really time to leave.

    Turok introduced me at a tender age to the concept of existentialism (I kid you not, and I owe Fred Greenberg for pointing this out to me in our Joe Kubert School years) and the moniker "honkers" for the prehistoric monsters I so loved. I'll write about Turok another time (and place: keep an eye out on 'The Paleo Path' window at my website, which already has a snazzy new homepage illustration in view), but must preface all the following with the context of Turok being the first and foremost of the quality dinosaur comics in reach from my earliest comic-reading experiences.

    There was also Dell's Tarzan comics series, adorned with exquisite painted covers but illustrated with a strangely accessible, utterly pragmatic ham-fisted exoticism by the one and only Jesse Marsh. I loved and still love Marsh's work, but his Tarzan was an object of ridicule when I was a boy (we used to imitate Marsh's minimalist slit-eyed, slit-mouthed Tarzan faces to make each other laugh) and throughout my pro cartoonist years (no less a celebrity than Mike Kaluta delivered the most damning, devastating verbal trashing of Marsh's art I've ever heard, back in 1978). I think Marsh was a master. He was an extraordinarily inventive, imaginative cartoonist, and his great affinity for drawing animals with deft, primal brush strokes has rarely been bettered (Richard Corben's creatures are heavily informed by Marsh's). Tarzan comics were a constant tease that only occasionally delivered the dino-groceries whenever the Ape Lord would visit Pal-Ul-Don or its fringes, where Tarzan tamed and rode Gryfs (Burroughs-speak for Triceratops) but more often dealt with a procession of almost-saurian wannabes, like giant crocodiles, iguanas, etc. Phah.

    There was Dell’s launch of Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle (with Four Color #1256, early winter/spring of 1962), sporting a knockout painted cover by Tom Beecham.
  • As Scott Shaw! notes in his excellent Oddball Comics website posting on this debut issue of Kona, Beecham also “painted the cover of Pyramid Books 1960 paperback movie tie-in reissue of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic prehistoric story The Lost World, published to coincide with the release of Irwin Allen's 1960 film of the same name.

  • Kona's premiere issue kicked off 21 issues of my all-time favorite comic of the ‘60s, arguably among the first serialized graphic novels of the medium (the first ten issues of Kona are indeed an ongoing and outrageous odyssey that reads as a single continuity), though no doubt Eddie Campbell won’t abide by that call. The man who delineated every single issue of Kona’s adventures was the great Sam Glanzman, whose work had a profound and lasting impact upon how I see and how I draw. The writer, however, remained uncredited throughout, typical of Dell Comics policies. The best contemporary fan and comics historian speculation chalks the intoxicating lunacy of Kona's scripts up to one Don Segall, who reportedly scribed Dell's 87th Precinct comics (one of which, illustrated by Bernie Krigstein in one of his final comics art gigs, just landed in my collection thanks to a dealer's booth at the Antique Mall in Quechee, VT, and at a really sweet, affordable price!). Back in 1991 or so, I had the opportunity to talk to Sam Glanzman by telephone, and I asked him who wrote Kona; Sam couldn't recall his name (he apologized throughout our conversations about his lapses in memory, though the anecdotes he did recall and share were delicious), but he did remember having to work closely with his Kona editor to 'adapt' most of the Kona scripts to something more -- logical. For instance, Sam told me that in the original issue of Kona, the script called for Dr. Dodd to deal with the oncoming freight train of a rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex by -- writing the dinosaur a check (!!!). I was incredulous, but Sam insisted this was true, and I've never had reason to doubt anything Sam said before or after, and I've since heard wilder stories. "I had Dodd firing his gun at the dinosaur instead," Sam chuckled.

    Kona, for those of you who've never heard of or read this glorious chestnut, chronicled the breathless globe-trotting adventures of the white-haired, bayonet-armed Kona, a Cro-Magnon caveman ruling a Neanderthal tribe on the remote Pacific Monster Isle, yet another island where prehistoric life survives. In the debut installment, Kona ends up effectively adopting the family of scientist Dr. Dodd as savior and perpetual protector, forging a patriarchal relationship with Dodd that last 21 issues and the most imaginative, intoxicating monster-action of any Silver Age comic.

    The most fantastic single issue of ‘em all was Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle #3 (September 1962), which capped the initial trio of stories set in and beneath Monster Isle itself before spilling Kona, Dr. Dodd, Mary and the kids into the audacious multi-issue saga in which they would survive confrontations with outsized beetles and carnivorous vines (living symbiotically in an abandoned futuristic city in Brazil), irradiated red-eyed dire wolves, a desert trek involving an awakening Phoenix Bird, the feuding races of Atlantis and Lemuria, Easter Island’s lost blue-skinned tribe (and giant Kiwi birds!), even a giant mutant kitten. Extravagant as all that was (and remains), it was anticipated by the menagerie of monsters that populated Kona #3, as cataclysmic disasters plunge Kona, Dr. Dodd and family into the subterranean Cave of Mutants.

    Glanzman pulled out all the stops, opening my youthful eyes to the seemingly infinite possibilities of fusing known animal forms into new combinations to create uncanny (and, to my eyes, utterly lifelike) monsters, a primal moment in this young artist’s earliest awakenings to the potential of the mighty pencil. This was also linked to my early Catholic upbringing and my first gander at Heironymous Bosch’s paintings, which I somehow linked to Glanzman’s Kona madness, particularly the crazyquilt critters in this issue -- which, to my eternal frustration, I did not own, but had to borrow repeatedly from my then-best-friend Mitch Casey to read. I once offered Mitch a stack of 35 comics for that one issue of Kona, but he declined -- such was its worth in our eyes (I wouldn’t own my own copy until my late teenage years and a dumb-luck find in a flea market).

  • No surprise today that this very comic registers among the cream of Scott Shaw!’s all-time fave comics, too, and common touchstone we both treasure into our own dinosaur years.

  • But much as I loved (and love) Kona, the comic title that made of me a habitual comicbook reader, devotee and budding cartoonist was National Periodicals/DC Comics's most outrageous war comic ever, Star-Spangled War Stories. From issue #90 (April/May 1960) on, editor/writer Robert Kanigher helmed a rabid rollercoaster of science-fantasy-war madness that made every two months worth saving nickels for, worth living for, worth making it to age six and seven and eight.

    The first War That Time Forgot issue,
    April/May, 1960

    Now, I bandy about the names of Kanigher and his stable of artists today, but at age five and six, I really had no clear notion of how comics came to exist. They just did. I didn't really grasp that people made them until I began to recognize, distinguish between and seek out the work of certain artists, whose names I didn't know and had no idea how to identify by name. Like most young comic readers, my tastes (such as they were and are) were evolving, and I easily distinguished between the comics I really liked, the comics I sorta liked, the comics I'd read if there were no other choice (barbershops seemed primarily stocked with these barely-tolerable diversions), and the comics I had no interest in whatsoever even if they were the only comics in reach.

    At age four and five, Jack Kirby's Atlas (aka Marvel, before it was "Marvel") monsters were the best, but the raw power of their appearances were almost too scary at times. I would stare at them for hours, but they resisted all attempts to copy them: my childhood drawing skills, sad sorry skill set that it was, simply couldn't comprehend, much less copy, Kirby's uber-masculine power and perspective distortions to enhance that ongoing conflation of scale, volume and sheer brute strength. The dinos in Tarzan and Turok were lovely, but they didn't prompt me to preserve, savor and/or copy them.

    But the dinosaurs in Star-Spangled War Stories were another matter altogether -- they were the best, and coolest, and I cut up an issue or two of the comic and pasted every single image of a dinosaur from those issues into my first scrapbook so I could contemplate them, sans word balloons and those distracting soldiers and tanks, and copy them in my own drawings. The "War That Time Forgot" dinosaurs were as cool and mesmerizing as the dinosaurs I had seen in movies on TV, and though they were completely unlike those in the encyclopedias (which provided my first exposure to Charles R. Knight's classic paleontological reconstructions of prehistoric life, defining those forms for generations to come, my own included), there was a galvanizing reality to these critters I couldn't shake -- and struggled to replicate.

    The monster maestros who drew these fantastic dinosaurs had no name for me to hang on to -- the comics were uncredited, the covers unsigned, lacking even the clues Glanzman's work provided (the characteristic "SJG" tucked away in splash page corners).

    The dinosaurs were distinctive and delirious, unlike any I'd seen anywhere else, rendered in bold ink lines and colored with the bright primary colors my plastic toy dinosaurs were molded in -- but better, brighter, livelier, more alive and imposing. These antediluvian animals were top-sign reds and yield-sign yellows, deep cobalt blues and weird fetal pinks.

    I didn't know it until later (Metal Men, I think, is when I made the association), but these comics were the handiwork of the team of Andru and Esposito -- penciller Ross Andru (who I would later meet in my professional life, and who was the first DC editor to give any of we lowly Kubert School students a gig at DC, post-Kubert School graduation) and inker Mike Esposito.

  • As Scott Shaw! has so accurately observed, "These guys drew prehistoric monsters with tons (literally!) of personality; their work was the comic book equivalent of special effects masters Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, which undoubtedly inspired the funnybook duo in the first place."

  • Yes, that's it, precisely. I was already a Ray Harryhausen addict -- though, again, too young to identify or know the name of the genius who created and breathed illusory stop-motion animated life into my favorite movie monsters, and my first exposure to Famous Monsters of Filmland was still a little ways off. The Andru and Esposito dinosaurs were that hypnotic, that desirable, that engaging and essential and alive and intoxicating.

    In hindsight, piecing together the chronology of all this, Andru & Esposito were working overtime on dinosaur comics in 1961.

    They drew Wonder Woman tangling with “island eater” sea reptiles, the Suicide Squad being devoured by another (which turns out to be a spaceship, in which an entire prehistoric world is malingering, all in The Brave and the Bold #39). They drew the iconic cover for Rip Hunter...Time Master #1, in which a weird bipedal saurian volcano monster walks through the streets of a Swiss village. Though I never got to actually hold and read this comic until I was an adult, the ads for this issue were omnipresent in so many DC comics of that winter/spring that my six-year-old-self was hallucinating possible scenarios to rationalize that bizarre cover image. Andru & Esposito also cranked out six full issues of inspired Star-Spangled War StoriesWar That Time Forgot” delirium.

    Almost (if not every one) of these 1961 dino comics was also edited and scripted by the legendary Robert Kanigher, who I got to meet years later when I was a student at the Joe Kubert School. Alas, my pioneer class never had Kanigher as an instructor, though we sorely wanted him -- after all, a few of us had already worked from Kanigher scripts on our student jobs illustrating back-up stories for Joe Kubert's editorial tenure on Sgt. Rock. Kanigher's prickly, no-nonsense approach to we lowly students was, in our minds, a perfect warm-up for the pro life we craved and were working so hard to achieve, not to mention the uncanny chemistry Joe and Bob shared whenever they were in a room (and classroom) together. Kanigher suffered fools and comics fans not at all, and my single attempt to ask him about "The War That Time Forgot" was curtly dismissed with a withering glare and wave of the hand, though Joe later told me Kanigher had been tickled I'd asked -- he just wasn't going to let on to me he cared. Haughty, conceited, imperious and razor-sharp, Kanigher embodied everything he feared in editors and everything we admired in writers. The second year Kubert School students had Kanigher as a teacher, and bitched about it mightily. We seniors envied them, their complaints only confirming everything we'd believed Kanigher offered -- and that we needed.

    Well, suffice to say that Kanigher and the Andru & Esposito team were the premiere dino scribes of the decade, despite the high regard Sam Glanzman will forever hold. Kanigher's scripts in this odd subgenre were even more bizarre than Kona's wildest extremes, if only for the seemingly endless and feverishly insane permutations Kanigher/Andru/Esposito brought to the subgenre -- including the loopy 1966 Metal Men #18, “The Dinosaur Who Stayed for Dinner!

    As I later discovered (thanks to Don Glut's writings), Andru and Esposito had introduced their trademark dinosaurs in 1951, in the second issue of Mister Universe (Media Publications, Inc.; here's the cover for the first issue). I tracked down a copy of the then-not-so-collectible Mister Universe #2 in the 1970s, and it's as treasured a comic in my collection as my complete set of St. John-published Joe Kubert Tors.

    Mister Universe was the first wrestling superstar in comicbook history, half-a-century before the wrestling mania of the 1990s. The seminal second issue features the 24-page story “The Jungle That Time Forgot!,” a perfect distillation of every dinosaur-island archetype that preceded it, from Edgar Rick Burroughs to King Kong's Skull Island and the dopey dino action of Unknown Island (released to theaters only a couple of years before Mister Universe #2 hit the comic racks). The dinosaurs in Mister Universe introduce, complete and without any tentative pen or brush strokes, the exact orientation to saurian delineation that made "The War That Time Forgot" stories so marvelous -- the same rounded teeth, exaggerated perspective views, scaly textures and movements and sense of life. They seemed to emerge full-blown from Andru's pencil and come to life via Esposito's inks, unlike any comic strip or comicbook dinosaurs before them. Amazing!

    I'm going to sign off here for now; there's much more to tell and share, and I will see to that later this or next week. In the meantime, it's essential I mention
  • there’s now an excellent book on Ross Andru and Mike Esposito's life and work, Andru & Esposito, Partners for Life (2006), from Hermes Press, co-authored by Mike Esposito, and
  • available from Amazon.com, here.

  • My copy has yet to arrive, so I can't recommend the book per se, but anyone interested in finding out more about Andru and Esposito at least has somewhere to go to these days.

    But I'm talking about those days...

    [End of Part One; Part Two to be posted later this or next week...]

    Have a terrific Tuesday, one and all!

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