Comic book showcase: The creators of Thanos.

So I saw Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.

Image result for avengers infinity war

The only thing I will say about it is that it’s one heck of a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an epic way to cap off this giant experiment that Marvel and Disney have been running for the past ten years.

Image result for marvel ten years

Other than that, I’m not saying anything else about the movie.  The internet is filled with enough spoilers as it is.

No, today I want to do something different and talk about the behind the scenes history of big bad guy of the film, the villain who has been teased for the past five years: Thanos.

Image result for thanos

The character is pretty simple.  He’s in love with the Marvel Universe’s personification of death and he attempts to prove his love by killing off half of the universe using the Infinity Gauntlet.

Image result for thanos and death

He’s one of Marvel’s most powerful bad guys and a big part of the strange and weird cosmic stories that Marvel produced in the 70’s and 80’s.

Image result for marvel cosmic

Sadly, Marvel’s cosmic stories were never a big seller for the company when you compare them to their mega hits like Spider Man and the X-Men.  Stories about characters like Ronan the Accuser and Adam Strange weren’t very popular, even though they’ve been getting more attention nowadays with the smash success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy

This is really sad since these are some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and high concept storytelling the company has ever produced, and most of this insanity was created by the other legend working at Marvel, and a long time favorite of this blog series: Jack Kirby.

Image result for jack kirby

You know him, you love him, he helped create nearly every single superhero on the big screen right now, and he loved him some crazy far out aliens and space stuff.

Image result for jack kirby

You can see a lot of his

design aesthetic on display in Thor: Ragnarok.

Image result for jack kirby thor ragnarok

While Marvel had Kirby to thank for some of the most fascinating and bizarre aspects of their superhero universe, he didn’t create Thanos.

Thanos was created by writer Mike Friedrich,

Image result for mike friedrich

and writer/artist Jim Starlin.

Image result for jim starlin

Both of these artists have had long and storied careers at both Marvel and DC and came into their own in the 70’s and 80’s, reinventing what comics could do and giving us some of the greatest characters and stories today.

Image result for 1970's marvel

Starlin in particular is the prince of the Marvel cosmic universe, and his resume is only dwarfed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby themselves.

He helped create Thanos,

Image result for thanos

Drax the Destroyer,

Image result for drax the destroyer

Gamora,

Image result for gamora

and he reinvented other heroes which will probably be making appearances in future Marvel movies like Adam Warlock,

Image result for adam warlock

and Captain Marvel (who has a long and interesting story that I’m not going to talk about here, but long story short he was created in the 70’s and was reinvented as a lady in the present day).

Image result for captain marvel 1970s

 

 

Yes people like Kirby, Friedrich, and Starlin were some of the most prominent and successful names in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, and were responsible for many of our childhood favorites.

And they all hated Marvel with a burning passion.

Long story short, the mega publisher decided to continue the long and sordid history of comic book publishers screwing authors and artists over.  Kirby followed in the footsteps of hundreds of his Golden Age co workers and was famously screwed out of most of the credit and royalties of his work, watching as his co creator Stan Lee would go on to become the biggest name in comics.

Image result for stan lee and jack kirby

Starlin in particular hates Marvel with the burning passion of a neutron star.

 

So they decided to quit Marvel and move on to greener pastures.  Kirby would move to DC Comics and create the characters of New Genesis and Apokalips, the latter being home to one of DC’s most powerful villains: Darkseid.

Image result for jack kirby darkseid and new genesis

Starlin and Friedrich decided to create their own comic, an anthology series known as Star Reach.

Star Reach is an interesting bit of comic book history.  It may seem like the comic book scene is dominated by Marvel and DC, and for the most part that’s true, but there has been a long running independent comic book scene that really took off in the 1970’s with the work of underground super stars like Harvey Pekar,

Image result for harvey pekar

Art Spiegelman,

Image result for art spiegelman

and Robert Crumb.

Image result for robert crumb

The independent “comix” scene has its own separate and unique history and you could write books about it,  but for the sake of time and simplicity all you need to know is that it was characterized by its own unique art styles, adult themes, and subject matter that was absolutely NOT for children.

Star Reach was a comic anthology that collected short science fiction and fantasy stories and shared and helped bridge the gap between mainstream comics and the independent comix of the time.

Image result for star reach and heavy metal

The first issue was published in 1974 and fans described the book as a “ground level publication”, sharing the distinction and aesthetic with a similar European publication we know today as Heavy Metal.

Image result for heavy metal comic

Perhaps it was the lurid material, or the crossover appeal bridging the gap between mainstream comic books and the underground comix scene, or maybe it was the famous names attached to the book.  Either way, Star Reach was a hit and had a pretty solid five year run.

Image result for starlin star reach

Also, it helped set off a boom of independent comic books published in the late 70’s and early 80’s which helped shape the pop culture landscape we know and love today.

You know what?  I think this might be the perfect segue into a new age for this blog.  Sure, the 40’s were a fantastic time for comic books and produced some of comics’ most endearing characters and crazy stories, but the late 70’s and 80’s had some pretty insane characters and were a pretty fascinating time for the comic industry as well.

All good things must evolve, and I think now might be the time to change it up a bit.

This’ll be fun.

Golden Age Showcase: Spider Widow

So I saw Spiderman: Homecoming yesterday.

Image result for spiderman homecoming

It was good, I liked it, and it’s good to know that Spiderman is back in the loving arms of the company that spawned him.

You can make the case that Spiderman is the closest thing Marvel Comics has to a mascot, or at the very least he’s Marvel’s most successful solo hero.

Image result for spiderman

And what’s not to like about him?  He’s got a great gimmick, he’s got a great backstory, and he’s one of the best creations to come out of the mind of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Image result for stan lee and steve ditko

But here’s the thing, great ideas like this don’t just come from nothing, and there were spider themed superheroes published in the 1940’s.  One of these heroes was a Quality Comics character named Spider Widow.

Image result for quality comics spider widow

Origin and Career

Spider Widow first appeared in Quality Comics’ Feature Comics #57 in June of 1942.

Image result for feature comics #57

She was created by comic book artist Frank Borth.

Image result for frank borth comics

While he did do some work for a Catholic magazine called Treasure Chest and did occasional work for Cracked (the magazine not the website), Spider Widow was his most popular creation.

As for her bio, her civilian identity was Dianne Grayton, rich socialite and lady about town.

Image result for quality comics spider widow

How did she get her powers?  Not mentioned.  Why did she decide to fight crime?  The comic didn’t seem to care.  What was her power?  She dressed up like an old hag and had the ability to control black widow spiders,

Image result for quality comics spider widow

swarms of them.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #58

You sure this is a superhero comic?  Because I’m getting more of a horror vibe from this.

Her enemies weren’t that special.  She fought the traditional assortment of stereotypical racist caricatures of Axis saboteurs.  What made her pretty unique was what Qualiy did with her.  First, they paired her with a superhero named the Raven, who made his first appearance in her title.

The story was simple.  Axis spies kidnapped her because she was meddling in their affairs a bit too much and the Raven swooped in and saved her.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #60

The day was saved, the two shared a thank you kiss, but sadly it was dark so they couldn’t see each other’s faces.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #60

The Raven was later revealed to be a man named Tony Grey, and the two wound up forming a romantic relationship on top of their crime fighting.

One of their more notable adventures was when they teamed up to fight Spider Man, a Nazi saboteur who controlled a giant robotic spider.

Image result for quality comics spider widow

Nazis controlling giant spiders?  NOPE! SOUND THE ALARMS!  PREPARE THE TERMS OF SURRENDER!

Now, two comic book heroes coming together in a comic isn’t really that special, but bringing in another hero and crossing over in two books?  That was pretty unique for the time.

I don’t know why they chose her, but Quality Comics had The Raven crossover with another Quality character named The Phantom Lady in Police Comics #20 in 1943.

Comic Book Cover For Police Comics #20

She wound up rescuing the Raven while he was investigating a crime ring and he brought her from Police Comics to Feature Comics for a couple of issues.

The two ladies did not get along very well.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #69

Plus, I’m willing to bet the writers were venting some pent up frustrations in the book through some impressively subtle fourth wall breaks.

Comic Book Cover For Feature Comics #69

Look at the second to last panel and tell me you aren’t a bit impressed.

The two even went as far as to fight a duel for the Raven’s affections,

Comic Book Cover For Police Comics #21

but it turned out to be a set up by some criminals and they quickly patched it over.  The day was saved and then everyone went back to their own titles.

So what happened?

Aside from her crossover with the Phantom Lady, Spider Widow wasn’t really that popular or noteworthy.  She lasted for a couple more issues and then disappeared around 1943.

It’s kind of a shame because she really did have a great gimmick and power set.  Sure she was pretty boring as a person, and having her fight with another lady over a man probably won’t score her a whole lot of points with modern audiences, but she is in the public domain and could be a great horror protagonist.

Image result for spider widow quality comics

While I don’t want to mistake correlation for causation, you can kind of see something resembling Spider Widow’s legacy in Marvel’s more modern characters.

For example. what’s the name of Marvel’s favorite super spy femme fatale?  Black Widow.

Image result for black widow marvel

Sure, she doesn’t have the power to control spiders but I like to think the creatives at Marvel were remembering Spider Widow when they came up with her.

Also, there was a villain in the Spider Man books named Spider Queen who had the power to control insects,

Image result for spider queen marvel

(yes I know spiders aren’t insects),

Sure, she’s not a wealthy heiress and controlling insects isn’t exactly a rare power, but it seems that Marvel has a pretty pronounced fascination with spiders and I like to think that Spider Widow was a start.

Image result for spider widow quality comics

Golden Age Showcase: Mastermind Excello

Today we’re winding down our coverage of J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve with the second to last hero in the story.  He’s the suave, playboy, telekinetic spy catcher for the United States Navy: Mastermind Excello.

 

Origin and career:

Like so many of his Golden Age compatriots Excello only lasted a couple of issues.  His first appearance was in Mystic Comics #3 in April of 1940,

Mystic Comics Vol 1 2

where he would uncover and defeat a Nazi spy ring.

His character was simple.  His real name was Early Everett and he was a wealthy playboy (because there aren’t enough of those in comic books) who possessed great physical and mental powers which he used to fight for America.

The man was sort of like an American James Bond but with superpowers as well as cool gadgets (this was a time when a pocket transmitter was a big deal).

So what happened?

Sadly “James Bond with superpowers” was as far as they were going to go with the character so it was up to Straczynski to expand the character and give him a more meaningful existence.

Judging from this picture they were off to a very good start.  The character looks badass, although to be fair anyone can look badass when holding a Tommy gun like that.

In The Twelve it is elaborated that Everett’s father is a brilliant scientist, so brilliant that he was actually pen pals with Einstein.  While his father was busy developing a special radioactive bullet for the Allies,

Earl Everett was determined to waste as much time and money as possible the only way a wealthy playboy with no concept of the value of money can.

It should be noted that for some reason Earl seemed to win more often than he lost.  This would later be revealed to stem from latent psychic abilities that wouldn’t be fully realized until a fateful trip to Britain where he was shot in the head by a Nazi spy while saving his father.

However, while the doctors managed to save his life they weren’t able to get all the bullet fragments out.  Several of these highly radioactive fragments would remain in his skull threatening to kill him.

After turning a new leaf Earl Everett decided to work on behalf of the United States government and was given the code name “Mastermind Excello”.

He would use his powers to great effect during the war, even helping the Allies retrieve occult items that the Nazis might have used to win the war.

In 1945 he joined the Twelve on their ill fated assault on Berlin.

They were captured, placed into stasis, and re discovered in 2008.

Like many of his compatriots Mastermind Excello had a difficult time fitting in.  It wasn’t for lack of money, his trust fund from 1940 had amassed millions, but it was more due to the continued noise and interference from this new world that played havoc on his psychic senses.

Excello separated himself from the group for most of the story and bought a house that he was able to soundproof and line with lead, which allowed him to enjoy a quiet peaceful life.  Gradually his future senses returned and he began interacting with his former teammates again.  While he couldn’t see the future clearly he could get glimpses and snippets of what was about to happen, enough to warn his friends and prepare them as best he could for the coming danger.

It would later be revealed that one of their own, the hero Dynamic Man, had turned evil and was ready to embark on a homicidal rampage.  Although Excello didn’t play a direct part in the ensuing fight he did help prepare the Phantom Reporter to take on the Fiery Mask’s powers and was able to help the team cope with the apparent death of Rockman.

After the fight was over Excello used his powers to ensure that The Phantom Reporter and Black Widow became a couple,

it worked.

It was also revealed that the shrapnel in his brain would kill him (kind like Iron Man only in his brain instead of his heart) if he used his powers to much.

Not willing to go quietly Excello decided to continue being a hero and used his vast fortune to purchase a large private investigator firm which he renamed E.X.C enterprises.  The Phantom Reporter and Black Widow were two of his first hires.

Like so many heroes in this series Mastermind Excello had tremendous potential as a hero.  He had the looks, superpowers, and motivation to be an interesting hero but sadly he was a drop in a very large bucket of “one and done” heroes.  Thankfully he was given a better ending and a new purpose on life with The Twelve.

Golden Age Showcase: The Black Widow

Today we’re going to talk about the Black Widow.

No, not that one.

The current, and perhaps more famous Black Widow as a product of the 1960’s and was one of the deadliest Russian spies the world had ever known before she decided to turn traitor and work for the United States.

The Black Widow we’re going to talk about today was a bit more…terrifying.

Origin and Career

The Golden Age Black Widow first appeared in Mystic Comics #4 in August of 1940.

She was created by comic book writer George Kapitan and artist Henry Sahle and was billed as the “strangest, most terrifying creature in action picture magazines”.  Judging from some of her pictures

it looks like they weren’t that far off.

The Black Widow started life as the psychic medium Claire Voyant (really Timely?  Really?) who was hired by the Wagler family for a seance in order to try to contact their dead father.  Unfortunately, Claire was possessed by Satan (because of course) who foretold that the family would all perish in a fiery death.

The prophecy turned out to be a fast acting one, as the Wagler family was killed in a brutal car accident after leaving from the seance.  However, the son James managed to survive and blamed Claire for his family’s death.

While this was probably the machinations of Satan, James paid the demon no heed and gunned Claire down.

Satan used this opportunity to collect Claire’s soul and turn her into one of his agents.

She would be tasked with acting as the Devil’s agent on Earth, collecting souls that were deemed evil enough to belong to the Prince of Darkness.

In order to fulfill her evil work Claire was given the gift of immortality (although this might not be true), immunity to most mortal weapons, and the ability to kill with a touch much like a Black Widow spider.

I’m not going to lie, I think this is awesome.

Sadly, like most characters we talk about on this blog, she only lasted a couple of stories.  That man in the frilly costume she’s killing?  That was her second victim, a notorious crime boss named Garvey Lang.  She would appear in three more stories where she targeted several villains and doomed them to an eternity in Hell, although there was one recorded instance where she helped heal one of the victims of a man she was charged with sending to Hell.  After that, shedisappeared off the face of the Earth for almost fifty years.

So what happened?

The Black Widow would find new life in Michael J. Straczynski’s 2008 mini series The Twelve, only this time with a revamped origin story.

This time around she gained her powers in 1928, after swearing her soul to Satan in exchange for the ability to avenge the death of her murdered sister.

In 1945 she joined a group of Golden Age heroes in storming Berlin at the tail end of the war.

She’s the one lifting the tank.

However, the raid went bust and the heroes were captured and put into suspended animation where they remained until they were rediscovered in 2008.

After waking up The Black Widow realized that her deal with Satan still applied and she would still be required to kill evildoers and deliver their souls to Hell.  Her first victim was a man named Simon Dexter, who she ripped limb from limb.

However, her reawakening wasn’t all bad.  She befriended several patrons at a goth themed bar

although that didn’t last very long and she wound up developing romantic feelings for one of her colleagues, the Phantom Reporter.

Sadly many of her friends wound up perishing when it was revealed that one of their own had turned evil but thankfully, the Black Widow would get a happy ending.

She wound up realizing that she and the Phantom Reporter were in love,

and became private investigators for Exec Enterprises, a private investigation firm headed by another one of their colleagues: Mastermind Excello.

A happy ending for one of the most troubled anti heroines in all of comics.