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Category Archives: Epic Comics

Tales from the Long Box Vol. 2 # 9: JP Revisits Epic Illustrated # 22

 

 

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
Writers: Various
Artists: Various
Epic Comics

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tales from the Long Box Vol. 2 # 6: JP Revisits Stray Toasters # 1

Every weekend this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new instalment 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.

 

 

 

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Stray Toasters # 1
Writer and Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
Epic Comics

Fine art and comic books have always gone hand in hand. Whether it was the painted covers of the pulp magazines in the 1930’s or the 1970 decade of fantasy and science fiction portraits by world-renowned artists such as Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, paint, brush and comic book panels seem to enjoy one another’s company.

The 1980’s became a bit of a turning point in this relationship.

Although painters had historically always found work in comic books – generally on front covers, posters or advertisements – mainstream publishers such as DC and Marvel began employing this type of artistry inside their comics with much more regularity. The fine artist, interested in comic book work, began a rise to prominence, their names becoming as common as the names of the fictional characters they rendered. It was during this time that artist Dave McKean had much acclaim with his collaged Sandman covers, where John J. Muth’s artistry on the twelve-part Moonshadow series showcased an emerging, delicate talent, where the thick, painterly work of Kent Williams on Blood: A Tale depicted impressions not felt before in monthly periodicals.

And then there was the kinetic, rock and roll art styling of Bill Sienkiewicz and his 4-issue, prestige-format series, Stray Toasters.

I loved Sienkiewicz’s art, but growing up but I never knew how to properly pronounce his name. I can distinctly recall pronouncing his surname as “Sinkwench” or “Signcaywench” and sometimes “Swench” for short. No one I ever had a conversation with about the artist ever corrected me – a tell-tale sign they had no idea how to pronounce the man’s name properly either!

A Marvel Comics mainstay during the early 1980’s on such titles as Moon Knight and New Mutants, Sienkiewicz was inherently a more gifted illustrator than writer. He had only written one story, a painted piece (of course) in the pages of the fantasy and sci-fi magazine, Epic Illustrated, previous to his work on Stray Toasters. But the artist was a fan favourite and well into his ascendancy in the comic book business.

Published by Epic Comics (an imprint of Marvel Comics) in 1988, Stray Toasters had much fanfare surrounding it. In the first issue, readers discover a story centered on a criminal psychologist investigating the murders committed by a serial killer. The characters and narrative are just as fractured, as energetic and sometimes just as displaced as the artwork itself. Where these aspects are strengths for the art, they are distractions for the story.

The main character has recently been released from a psyche ward hospital himself and harbors both odd delusions and strange visions. An old lover of the doctor, a psychologist herself, is harboring the autistic child of one of the serial killers victims, while the serial killer himself looks to be a walking, talking toaster (of the 2 slice variety) who has rage issues against women. In addition, it looks as though a demon is visiting New York City on holiday, sending postcards with unflattering words about lawyers, back to his compatriots in Hell.

Confusing? Slightly mad? Absolutely!

Although I bought all four issues of the series, I remember losing interest each month in the story that seemed to leave me behind in favour of its own esoteric endeavors. There are some that state Stray Toasters is a better read in its collected form. Personally, as a story, I have difficulty going back to it. Still, reflecting on the artwork seems to draw me in from time to time.

Sienkiewicz has a distinctive style that sets him apart from his contemporaries. He has a gift for narrative in his art alone. Something as simple as a 12-panel page that follows a bouncing ball tells so much: a professional woman, arriving at home after work and relaxing; a ball that depicts both movement and hence, time, and the psychological intent of a broken calmness, of a child – not seen, perhaps missing. This scene occurs early in the story, directly before a vicious attack sequence. It’s a riveting set-up.

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Like the disparate characters in Stray Toasters, Sienkiewicz switches gears in his artistic stylings as well. Atmospheric painting quickly gives way to pen and ink caricatures, a not-so-subtle treatise on television personalities, in addition to the ongoing, convoluted story.

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Yes, there is so much, too much crammed into Stray Toasters.

One of the more delightful elements in Sienkiewicz’s artwork are his full-page portraits. Luckily for readers, there are many in the series. These are the images in which the artist excels: a moment that is large enough, on paper, that he can display his skills with the brush, with his line work, his strength with colour and his sense of design. They also provide a moment of respite from the frantic pace of the tale. Even with Sienkiewicz’s expressionistic, often dark style, there are times where his painted work seems very peaceful, very Americana – even, perhaps, Norman Rockwell-esque.

A strange idea in itself, no? Very Stray Toasters, after all.

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Today, careers have been made for the artists who only work on comic book covers, those fine painters who only occasionally apply their labours to the interior as well. It was the work of Bill Sienkiewics who largely opened the doors for this profession in the mainstream comic book business. Stray Toasters may not have been the most memorable of stories but it was an early work that saw artists move to the front billing on the covers they themselves created. It was an example of the type of project that pushed the envelope of what a comic book could be.

And just so you have a clear understanding, Sienkiewicz is pronounced sin-KEV-itch. The man tells you himself on his website! It’s been long enough. Get it right!

Tales from the Long Box # 10: Japer Revisits Alien Legion # 1

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you 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.

Alien Legion # 1
Writers: Carl Potts, Alan Zelenetz
Artists: Frank Cirocco, Terry Austin
Epic Comics

“Footsloggers and soldiers of fortune, priests and poets, killers and cads – they fight for a future Galarchy, for cash, a cause, for the thrill of adventure. Legionnaires live rough and they die hard, tough as tungsten and loyal to the dirty end.”

Those are the opening words to the first issue of The Alien Legion, a sci-fi series published by Epic Comics, a division of Marvel Comics, premiering in early 1984. The series lived up to each of those words.

For the past five weeks now, the Long Box has been focused on horror-related comics. I thought it was high time to switch gears and turn our collective heads upwards and gaze into outer space. The Alien Legion is a great place to start.

The early eighties was beginning to see a change in the comic landscape. Small publishing upstarts like First Comics and Comico, among others, were beginning to stretch their creative legs and take a run at Marvel and DC. Never a real financial threat, these companies still became a viable alternative to the big two. They employed underground writers and artists who had distinct views on both comics and the world. The stories they published would often push at the barriers that the politically-correct Comic Code Authority had intimidated over the preceding decades. Marvel Comics, with their astute business acumen, decided to become an early adopter of creator-owned projects and turned their flagship Epic Illustrated magazine, which contained envelope-pushing material, into a publishing arm that would release more avant-garde works into the marketplace. Future comic legends like Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart would see their creations Dreadstar and Coyote come to critical acclaim via the Epic imprint.

Created in stages by Carl Potts throughout the 1970’s, The Alien Legion was one of the first creator-owned series regularly published by a big comic company. Based on the real-life French Foreign Legion but mixed with influences from such films as Star Wars, Star Trek and The Dirty Dozen, The Alien Legion became something of a minor hit, lasting twenty bi-monthly issues in its first run, eighteen in its second, as well as a graphic novel and a number of one-shots and mini-series. It would seem that the comic-book audience, coming off of the original Star Wars trilogy, was ready for a science fiction-based team book as an alternative to a mutant-based one.

The double-sized first issue illustrates both the hard and rough nature of being a Legionnaire as well as setting the stage for the universe in which the Legionnaires exist. The universe itself, Potts has stated is “an extrapolation of the American democratic melting pot society” where differing worlds and aliens of various species partner, negotiate and, in many cases, compete ruthlessly with one another. Readers are introduced to the three seats of power in the Galactic Union. Known as the executive, legislative and judicial branches, it is a firm nod to US-style politics – which are, of course, perfectly situated for inter-galactic relations. (My tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, if you hadn’t guessed.) Of course, as in real life, this situation doesn’t always work, and the seeds of political unrest are foreshadowed in the story.

The ensemble group of characters that make up the Legionnaires’ Nomad Squadron are what drive interest in the comic. The half-serpentine alien and consummate professional, Sarigar is the squad’s leader while wealthy aristocrat humanoid, Torie Montroc III, is his second in command. Torqa Dun is a defamed government agent out for material gain and Durge is a reckless adventurer. Perhaps the most popular of all characters is Jugger Grimrod, a suspected criminal who, it so happens, carries piano wire in his wrist guards in order to slit the throats of his enemies. Grimrod, it should be mentioned, went on to star in two of his own specials. The rest of the group is made up of thieves, loners, and the dregs of the galaxy which all contribute to the friction and philosophy that propels the story of Nomad Squadron forward. Characters die here. They are betrayed, rescued and redeemed. In fact, Sarigar sums up the Legion best in a brief conversation with Montroc: “You’re not fighting for ideals,” he tells the Lieutenant. “You’re fighting for the Legion.”

The art, by Frank Cirocco, an acclaimed designer, is beautiful to look at. Through his company, Lightsource Studios, he has done work for Lucasfilm Ltd., Dreamworks, Electronic Arts and Universal Studios. Now, I love Cirocco’s imaginative work. In this first issue alone, he has designed a staggering number of aliens, infusing them all with a sense of history and culture. But Cirocco is a designer at heart. When illustrating comics, his figures are stoic, with a distinct lack of movement and fluidity. Still, they look magnificent, especially when inked by the great Terry Austin.

It can be argued that the relative success of series like The Alien Legion and the broader view of Marvel publishing stories that weren’t mutant-centric, gave rise to the award-winning series The ‘Nam a few years later. Carl Potts went on to write such characters as the Punisher, helping to bring that c-list character into the mainstream, as well as becoming Editor-in-Chief of the Epic Comics division of Marvel. Branching out with his owned work, The Alien Legion was pitched as a computer-animated television series a few years back. It would have been cool to see those characters of Nomad Squadron, world-hopping and blowing things up on the frontiers of the galaxy.

Maybe that day will still come. With creator-owned projects, nothing is ever dead – the projects just wait.

Tales from the Long Box # 9 – Japer Revisits Clive Barker’s Hellraiser #1

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you 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.

Clive Barker’s Hellraiser # 1
Writers: Various
Artists: Various
Epic Comics

I have to admit. Horror isn’t necessarily my thing. I enjoy it, but I enjoy it sparingly – like a dash of freshly cracked pepper over my medium-rare steak. I’m not into blood and guts and vampires and zombies aren’t my thing. Andy B can have those for himself.

What I am into, however, is when the horror genre attempts to make sense of the evil in our world. Be it “real” or an “imagined” evil, horror, for me, needs to have some grounding in our daily lives. We need to have an affiliation with it, a relationship of some kind. More than that, horror, true horror, needs to be personal.

That’s why The Exorcist, the tale of evil beset upon an innocent family will always be horrifying to me. Being raised catholic, I suppose, will do that to you. Fredrick Brown’s short story, Don’t Look Behind You is the most frightening thing I’ve ever read. Here, the author makes the reader the subject of an impending doom that is entirely plausible. I was neurotically looking over my shoulder for weeks after reading that tale and it continues to affect me today. (If you haven’t already, find it and read it!) This all brings me to Clive Barker and the comic book series based on, arguably, his most famous creation – Hellraiser.

Published by Epic Comics in 1989 and lasting twenty bookshelf issues, the series was an anthology of stories, written and illustrated by some of the most creative people in the industry. The first issue contained works by legendary horror artists, John Bolton and Bernie Wrightson among many others. Here, the creators were given cart blanche. They could use established characters and mythos or build upon those themes and that history.

Thankfully, readers got a taste of both.

The first story, “The Cannons of Pain,” is set during the time of the crusades where a God-fearing knight endures death and destruction in the pursuit of a small, seemingly ornate box. Indeed, this is Barker’s famous creation, the so-called Lament Configuration, a rubiks-cube type of device that, when solved, summons forth the Cenobites, demons from hell, to this earthly plane. Written by Eric Saltzgaber and magnificently painted by the previously mentioned John Bolton, this tale is a warning for those that tread close to evil in their pursuit to abolish it – that wickedness tends to infect good, that it corrupts holy deeds and makes a mockery of the righteous. Bolton’s art is the strength of the piece. He creates a new, disfigured Cenobite here – leather-clad with one lip hooked like a fish, stretched and tied to its own nipple. It is a visceral and organic visual. The colour scheme of chilly pinks and gangrenous greens is stomach churning but it’s the look of disgust on the creature’s face, tinged with a factual, hollow stare when it speaks of God’s earthly interventions that the story is at its most frightening. “Do you think, Monseigneur,” the demon coldly states, “that if He exists, and if He is as powerful as you claim, that He would trifle himself with you?” Good horror bends and breaks the status quo and makes us question our long-held beliefs. That’s where this story succeeds.

Another story, “The Warm Red,” written by Jan Strnad and illustrated by the great Bernie Wrightson also delves into the seduction of good – of morality under the coercion of evil. Here, a Cenobite by the name of “Face” easily commits the most heinous of crimes – betrayal. We are reminded that there is no honour or trust in hell.

There is, however, bargaining.

The Cenobite is given the name “Face,” because he wears the dead, rotting flesh of his tortured subjects over his own visage and body. In this story, he takes his own acolyte, a monster of man who has been providing the demon with human subjects to torment, as his latest victim. He does this because a woman, once good, discards her long-held morals in order to save herself. Woman, it seems, can offer hell more souls to torture than a man ever could.

Like the previous story mentioned, “The Warm Red” also has a moment of sheer horror that resonates in our reality. The Cenobite, cold, calculating and ruthless, calmly warns, “I can see you, you know. From the other side.” It’s this line that conjures our deepest fears: that there are things unknown but speculated upon, beings of deep wickedness and malevolence that exist and watch us and wait for our lapses in judgment and moral strength.

There are painted front and end pages by Kent Williams in this first issue as well – haunting images of the common woman being apprehended by a demon Cenobite in one illustration and the common man reaching out to a the creature for an embrace in the other. A fitting statement to the world of Hellraiser.

Of course, there is also the John Bolton cover, the quintessential image of the greatest and most well known of Cenobites: Pinhead.

Barker’s work has changed an entire genre. His influence can be seen in any of today’s horror films and it’s a testament that his Hellraiser characters and themes have lived on and been expanded upon beyond his initial The Hellbound Heart short story. They are a lasting legacy now, a part of the pantheon of horror, something that all things truly horrifying are: timeless in their ability to illicit a quickening heartbeat and beads of sweat upon a brow.

Adding to that sense of legacy, I leave you with a nightmarish image from our resident artist, Denny B. He has created a new cenobite, leather-clad with skin pulled across bone and destined to haunt the halls of your nightmares.

Does anyone want to add to the dread and name him? Names, I have heard, hold power, so I cautiously submit “Stitch.”

Happy Halloween.

 

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