Every week 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.
The Punisher War Journal # 1
Writer: Carl Potts
Artists: Carl Potts and Jim Lee
Toronto’s Fan Expo 2010 is this weekend, running from Friday, August 27 thru to Sunday, August 29 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It’s something that my friends (and friends of Biff Bam Pop! everywhere) look forward to each year. We meet up, we grab coffees and, if we’re lucky, breakfasts, we wait in lines, we attend crowded seminars, we gawk at people wearing superhero or anime character costumes and we float around aisles upon aisles of back issue comics, looking for deals on obscure titles.
Well, at least that’s what I do.
The landscape of comic book conventions has changed a lot since I first began collecting way, way back in 1985. Actually, I didn’t attend my first con until 1989, back in those early, formative years of high school. If I remember correctly (and I think I do), it was in a small seminar room at the Courtyard Marriot at Yonge St. near College Park. I remember the colour brown. It was everywhere: in curtains and carpeting, in floor tiles and felt-covered chairs. It made the surroundings seem so drab.
But not the convention itself. No, the convention lit the hotel up!
However, as I mentioned, it wasn’t like the conventions of today.In 1989 there were only a few hundred con goers on that weekend day – not the thousands that will be in attendance at the Expo this coming weekend. There were probably only a few dozen retailers there as well, selling back issues of comics, pulps and posters. These days, there are literally hundreds of tables selling everything from t-shirts to obscure toys, models, figurines and candy in addition to comics, electronics and film and television paraphernalia.
One thing that hasn’t changed (but like everything else, has become more popular) are the line ups to meet comic book creators.
I love this aspect of comic book conventions: the chance to talk to your favourite writer or artist and let them know what you think of their work, perhaps ask for a sketch or ask for a signing.
In 1989, it was Jim Lee.
Jim Lee had just begun a run on the popular series, The Punisher War Journal, which had premiered months earlier during the summer of 1988. After some work on Marvel’s Alpha Flight series, War Journal was Lee’s first big-time mainstream success, originally as inker over writer and artist Carl Potts’ pencils, and then as full-time illustrator of the hard-hitting, violent series.
As a character, The Punisher’s popularity was on the rise. After an acclaimed mini-series in the mid eighties and a monthly book titled, aptly enough, The Punisher, War Journal was the second series to feature the gun-blazing rogue with the skull on his chest. The era was very mush post-Dark Knight, post-Watchmen and gritty and violent and stylized realism in comics was the norm, a perfect landscape for the one beat, second-tier character of the Punisher. But War Journal, for all of its bullets and bombs, its death and violence, was very much rising star Jim Lee’s coming out party.
And, as one of my favourite artists at the time, I stood in line to talk to him, to let him know how much I liked his work and to get his autograph on issues one, two, three, four and five!
The first page of the first issue would signal the tone for the rest of the series. It depicts a full page spread of the Punisher, against a brick wall, facing the viewer, (here his adversary), while a gun barrel bears down on him in the foreground. His first words are: “Go ahead. Do it. I don’t have all day.”
Jim Lee was fairly new to comic books and although he only had work as an inker on the first issue of The Punisher War Journal, his illustrative style was evident. Finishing Carl Potts’ pencils, Lee’s inks were tight and crisp, emphasizing highlights but also scratchy in areas, depicting muscle tone and facial, arm and chest hair. These artistic elements can still be seen in his work today, although, perhaps, more subtly, used with more care than they were in the late nineteen eighties. His work on The Punisher War Journal was reminiscent of the legendary Frank Miller’s early work in the pages of Daredevil, while staying close to contemporaries like Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Rob Liefeld. Lee, however, filled his panels with detail, a realism not unlike a camera taking a photograph with everything in focus: foreground, middle ground and background. His heroes and villains were always larger than life: muscular, expressive and ready for action, his layouts always dynamic.
After The Punisher War Journal, Lee’s star would continue to rise, winning a Harvey Award in 1990 for Best New Talent. He went on to draw acclaimed runs on both Uncanny X-Men and The X-Men, his name becoming synonymous with comic books in the 1990’s and using his popularity to change the industry itself after breaking away from Marvel Comics and co-founding the Image and Wildstorm companies and brands. Wildstorm would later be purchased by DC Comics, embedding Lee, now the business man as well as artist, into the sizable and powerful Warner Brothers organization.
Most recently, in February of this year, Jim Lee was named the new Co-Publisher of DC Comics. Not a bad career as a fan favourite artist, influence-maker in the comic book industry. And I’ve got his autograph – back when he was “just” an inker! It’s almost like I knew what he’d become in the industry!
Which takes me back to Fan Expo and waiting in line to meet the writers and artists of the industry. One of these young creators may very well become the Jim Lee of the next generation of comic book power brokers.
And a word of advice: looking back, I probably should have asked Lee for a drawing. A Punisher would have been great. Maybe a Wolverine. Those things could cost you your soul these days!
Still, it’s the chit-chat with creators and contemporaries, strangers and friends, that makes this industry, this hobby, as exciting and as fun as it is!