Every weekend this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new installment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
Epic Illustrated # 22
Back in the mid 1980’s, there were a number of influences that got me hooked on comic books. Not the least of which was a good friend of mine named John. At the time, John was collecting the space-faring, sword-wielding adventures of Vanth Dreadstar in his self-titled monthly series, created, written and drawn by a young Jim Starlin. The Dreadstar comic was published by Epic Comics, a subsidiary of Marvel. They also published, as their flagship title, a science fiction and fantasy, adult-oriented anthology magazine called, oddly enough, Epic Illustrated.
Epic was America’s answer to Europe’s Heavy Metal magazine. Published between 1979 and 1986, writers and artists of various disciplines and genres had their stories appear on its pages, a showcase for both established and budding talent. Dreadstar’s premiere story, The Metamorphosis, appeared on those pages and, as a burgeoning collector, I tried to track down that original serialization.
The first issue of Epic Illustrated that I bought was # 22. I fell in love with the cover first, a painted image of a scantily-clad, silver-haired beauty with sword in hand, demonic tentacles wrapped menacingly around her body. The story inside delivered on what the cover promised.
Marada the She-Wolf, written by Chris Claremont and lavishly illustrated by British artist John Bolton became my very first comic book Holy Grail. I hunted down every issue of Epic that had her in it. Marada was like no other. Originally, the story was intended to be a Red Sonja yarn, the Conan the Barbarian supporting character. Because of the Brigitte Neilson movie of the same name, released in 1985, the comic company wanted to keep Claremont and Bolton’s creation a separate entity from that of the celluloid female barbarian. Claremont, in a stroke of genius, changed the time period of Marada, moving it from Hyborian times to Roman, making her a grand daughter of Caesar and, perhaps most famously, altered her hair colour from red to silver. The woman was written and illustrated as both a fierce warrior and a sensual lover. Her stories of magic, demons and high adventure would run within the pages of Epic Illustrated on more than one occasion as well as spawn a graphic novel. Originally, her tales in the magazine were in black and white wash but because fan reaction was so positive, Epic agreed to allow Bolton to illustrate the tale in issue #22 in full palette water colour. The results are breathtaking.
The issues that Marada found herself in were some of the magazine’s biggest sellers and Epic, being no slouches in the business sense, commissioned Bolton on a number of their covers – all featuring the ravishing, sword-brandishing heroine.
Of course, there are other, beautifully rendered stories in the issue as well.
Jim Starlin and his wife, the fine artist Diana Graziunas, collaborate on The Dance, a prose piece. Interestingly, Epic originally bought Graziunas’ paintings but was not keen on publishing the story that accompanied them. Starlin rewrote the work, firmly establishing the narrative in his previously mentioned Dreadstar universe. The resultant work of religion and politically-tinged science fiction is truly awe inspiring. The work of Graziunas is both subtle and striking – oil paintings that evoke layered mythology within classical styling. Comic books never looked like this.
It’s rare for a comic publisher to take on unsolicited work but that’s exactly what Epic Illustrated did with Larry Glover’s The Scroll. Apparently it was the final scene, a political statement seen in the page below, that convinced editorial that they must publish the story.
It’s a testament to the vision of the company to give up-and-comers the chance to have their voice heard. This was a main reason that Epic had such a successful run. More than that, however, they opened up the forum to international creators as well. Canadians Dean Motter and Ken Steacy’s The Sacred & the Profane, another religious science fiction tale, and some of their earliest work, found itself serialized in the pages of Epic Illustrated. The magazine also served to showcase new works of art. Acclaimed horror and suspense illustrator, Berni Wrightson premiered his tour-de-force and highly anticipated Frankenstein – The Illustrated Novel in issue #22. The exceedingly detailed, cross-hatched drawings of scenes from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly’s classic novel add an incredible potency to the text itself. The hard cover graphic novel is a prized book on any collector’s shelf – but it was Epic that supported the work first.
The magazine, in a bid to truly be the centre of a pop culture niche also includes columns on media and books. Titled Mediaview and Bookview and written by comic book veterans Denny O’Neil and Jo Dully in issue # 22, the columns contain essays on both James Bond, as early eighties pop culture regards him as well as the author Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame, respectively. In regards to Pekar, this is entirely two decades before he came to prominence in the public eye.
Epic Illustrated, published bi-monthly, would last 34 remarkable issues. It gave early opportunities for talented creators such as Steven Bissette, Charles Vess and Kent Williams to have their works seen by the public. It gave voice to once little known authors such as Jim Starlin, Wendy Pini and John Bryne. It opened up entirely new writers, artists and genres to the world and remains one of the most prized on-going series in my collection – a series that I return to again and again, always finding something new, always finding something forward-thinking, always finding something fascinating.