Look, over there – isn’t that Charlie Brown’s pal Linus, belly crawling through the pumpkin patch? No, not Linus, but somebody who’s awfully familiar. Let’s get closer and… Rats! Do you believe that?
It’s me, looking the way I look in photographs Mom used to keep in a chest of drawers – that is, like a skinny eight-year-old. And now I’m getting up, rising from the pumpkin patch like some pagan deity.
The question is, where will I be when I’m finally on my feet? Oh, the suspense is killing us! Okay, okay, maybe not killing us, but… I don’t know. Making us feel queasy?
Table that for now and have a look around. I’ve been here before, but when?
And suddenly I’m gobsmacked! Because I’m in the small store Dad and I stopped at after Sunday Mass that sold bread and milk and stuff like that and comic books and – omygosh!, isn’t Superman #96? That’ll be worth a pretty penny on the collectors’ market.
Except that it won’t. In this reality, there are no collectors and so in this realty Supes 96 is worth the dime that is the asking price of most comics and… just exactly what is going on here?
The faithful among you may recall that some weeks back I mentioned “browsing” and sort of half-suggested that I might revisit the subject. Welcome to Revisitation Junction. And here we find young Dennis in progress, reaching for a copy of The Sub-Mariner and a cosmic page is turned – a cosmic reality that would be and our young time traveler
Is not so young and he’s still reaching for the Superman, but now the location is different; this store is very large and filled with all kinds of merchandise and the comic books are displayed on a wire rack that revolves and let us now pause and bow to the wondrous wire racks of my youth.
Brace for the turning of a cosmic page and –
Dennis doesn’t like where he is: what must be a bus depot in a large city. He’s wearing a Navy uniform (isn’t that a surprise!) The air stinks of cigarette smoke, the floor is encrusted with something black and probably lethal, and the comics in front of him are displayed in another wire rack, this one wide and flat, pushed against a wall. The whole scene is dirty and cold and depressing.
Join me in the turning of a cosmic page and –
Big contrast to the last destination. A very nice shop. Clean and well-lighted. Pleasant and comfortable. And full of comic books, some in foreign languages, and almost nothing else.
So. A shop that sells onlycomics. Has he somehow stumbled into some kind of science fiction?
What the heck! Maybe the best move is to go back to where it all started. Maybe this time he’ll run into Linus.
So it’s a ball boiler inside the Manhattan office building because although I’m pretty sure air conditioning existed it did not become ubiquitous until after the war that the good ol’ US of A was sliding into. What we’re looking at is an open window on an upper floor and somehow (are we pigeons?) we get inside and behold! Three middle-aged men, suit jackets draped over chairs, ties loosened, discussing the comic books they edit. They have had solid successes with characters a couple of young guys named Bill Everett and Carl Burgos brought in. The topic under discussion: more! More of Burgos’s Human Torch, of Everett’s Sub-Mariner: and yes, of course, more profits, and maybe this year’s Christmas bonus will be worth more than a subway token. Then one of the three (wise men?) has The Idea: Combine ‘em! Put them in the same issue…no, put ‘em in the same story.
And so they did, and a few months later your grandpa (great grandpa?) was sitting on a porch swing with his best gal reading about the meeting of Subby and The Torch, and being scolded by Best Gal for wasting time and money on those stupid funny books! (Okay, skeptics, can you prove that this stuff didn’t happen? Go ahead, Mr. Philosophy Dude, let’s see you prove a negative.)
Whatever the particulars, regardless of what did or did not actually occur, the Torch-Sub-Mariner stories went on sale and the few readable copies left are very early examples of what would later be a comic book staple, the team-up.
And then, the passing of years and The Justice Society of America, the Marvel Family, and a plethora of other costumed teams, until the arrival of the X-Men just abut the time when comics as a whole were getting a mighty, second wind and emerging from a decade-long obscurity, victims of the Eisenhower era witch hunts.
Comics were back!
And movies were following the trail they blazed. After a few single-hero flicks, the movies found the X-Men and a billion dollar franchise was born. Hold it! – not exactly born: rather, evolved from earlier existence as comic book characters. Fortunes were, and are, being made. More of them to come.
And the fossil who goes by my name can kick back and realize that the Netflix video enterprise, a first cousin to the movies mentioned above, is a super-group comprised entirely of character I’ve worked on. Yep, The Defenders, starring Iron Fist and Power Man, who were partners in their comic book home, and Daredevil and Patsy Walker.
Patsy made the giant leap from comics about post-teens to grim superheroic private eye Jessica Jones. Patsy’s light and bright escapades were closely related to other Marvel stuff like Millie the Model and if you didn’t know that, well, now you do.
As of this writing, I’ve only seen two of the Defenders programs and so have not earned the right to have an opinion about the whole series.
Catch me next week. Maybe by then I’ll have earned the aforementioned figured out the subject of the preceding 517 words.
In addition to being really into comics, I’m also really into history. I like to know where things came from and how they were made. This fact about myself has resulted in my reading of quite a few comics from the Golden and Silver Ages. Nearly all were reprints, but comics of those ages none the less. Although some of the comics then may not offer us the kinds of lessons in diversity and inclusion I’m normally advocating for, they actually do give us a valuable lesson in diversity that is lacking in mainstream comics today.
The norm for decades in comics was an anthology format. Marvel Mystery, Adventure, Action, Detective, Showcase, Journey Into Mystery, Police, Crime Does Not Pay, Eerie, Creepy, My Greatest Adventure, all of these and more would offer us up multiple stories featuring different characters in each. The first issue of Marvel Comics featured the Human Torch, the Angel (not that Angel), Sub-Mariner (yes, that Sub-Mariner), Masked Raider, a short story titled “Burning Rubber” and Ka-Zar. Yes, it wasn’t the standard 20-22 pages we see in most comics, it was 64 pages. The point being that you could have a single issue with many characters and stories. One title being the feature, with the highest page count, and the other stories being back ups.
As the years went by, anthology style comics at the big two were either getting canned, or morphing into books about one hero or team. My Greatest Adventure turned into Doom Patrol, Action into another Superman comic, Detective another Batman comic, Journey Into Mystery a Thor comic, and so forth. DC in particular tried to carry on with that tradition longer, having books like Legion of Superheroes have a feature story with a large portion of the team followed by a shorter back up with only one or two members to help us all get to know them better. Eventually, these efforts more or less faded away. Occasionally, like in Action Comics, Detective Comics or Justice League they’d have some sort of back up, but it was just furthering the feature story and not really it’s own thing.
DC did try bringing back more anthologies with Adventures of Superman, Legends of the Dark Knight, Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman, but all of those only featured the character in the title. Though those weren’t a bad idea, I do think it misses a key point of the older anthologies; to help introduce new characters to a market that might otherwise not pick up a book featuring one of those characters.
Both Marvel and DC have hundreds of characters at their disposal. The market only allows a certain amount of comics hitting the shelves at once while still being able to sell X amount of them all. Maybe instead of testing out different solo titles, they could try more anthology style comics.
Wouldn’t it be great is characters like Batman got more people reading Batwing and Batwoman because they were in the same book? What if you alternated who had the feature story, so maybe Batwoman would be the feature for a few months, but that Batman story in there helped keep enough readers on the title who otherwise wouldn’t be and kept the title afloat? What if we used a format like that to expose readers who otherwise wouldn’t go out of their way to read a comic with racial or religious minority characters, or LGBTQ characters in it?
DC editors recently decided they needed to stop “batgirling” and get back to “meat and potatoes.” That kind of talk usually ends up meaning going back to a less diverse time in comics. I get worried when I see Marvel or DC seemingly spread themselves too thin in certain areas. For example, as I mentioned last week, DC now has Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy, three white bisexual women as leads in their own solo titles. That won’t last forever. Maybe when that starts to change, a Gotham City Sirens book featuring all of them would be easier to maintain.
I think if comics are going to be serious about diversity, they have to do more than just cater to the readers of the different communities. Preaching to the choir is one thing, and it is important, but it’s not everything. We need to get more people outside of those communities to be exposed to them, and understand them better. It’s an important and necessary component in making comics a more diverse place and assuring that it won’t just end up being a fad.
Besides, this feeds into nostalgia, and what comic book reader in their right mind doesn’t love that?
For the past week the pop culture world has engaged in a post game analysis of the under-performing Fantastic Four movie. Instead of offering further analysis, I think it’s time to provide insights into an instance where the Marvel’s first family had more creative and authentic success onscreen.
My friend Tom Tataranowicz is a talented animation professional and a longtime comics fan. I’ve gotten to know him as we’re working together, with a talented team, to create the new Captain Action animated series… But that’s another story for another day. Tom’s impressive resume includes his work on the 1990s Fantastic Four animated show and, understanding his passionate dedication to his craft, I wanted to get his perspective on that “fantastic” experience.
When he is presented with a project like the Fantastic Four, Tom explained his approach to me. “I’m not trying to reinvent it. That’s not my job. Fealty to the original source material is key. Otherwise, fans say, ‘Where’s the comic I like?’ And I have to agree with them. I need to bring the fans’ dreams to life.”
The Secret Origin
Tom recalled just how he got involved with this Fantastic Four animated series. He had been working on the Biker Mice From Mars animated series and was completing the last of 65 episodes. The organization was called New World Animation at the time, and then the Marvel Films animation division started.
Avi Arad had just made the first season of the Fantastic Four cartoon with another unit, but they weren’t as well received as they had hoped for. One thought was that there were just too many characters crammed in there, in an overly zealous effort to support toy sales.
As Biker Mice From Mars was ending and they liked what he had done with that series, they reached out to Tom to take over both the Fantastic Four and Iron Man shows.
“I proposed that ‘I’m going to revamp everything,’“ recalled Tom.
On the FF show, Tom was rather perplexed that the previous team had chosen not to follow the comic’s official canon, focusing instead on often not too good, original stories. So his idea was to adapt classic stories from the comic book. The overall arc of the season that Tom developed revolved around the Inhumans’ introduction and subsequent exile.
And he also felt that it was important to change the look of the look of the main characters as well. The first season was using a robin’s egg blue color for the FF costumes that mirrored the existing toy line. But Tom’s vision was to establish a more heroic look by adapting the darker, blue/black, John Byrne style costumes of the 1980s.
“So I mapped out the season’s storylines and arcs and pitched it to Avi Arad and Rick Ungar. They liked it. I pitched it to Stan Lee. He liked it. I pitched it to Toy Biz and they liked it,” said Tom.
A Blind Man Shall Lead Them
But the question for season 2 was… Where to start? Looking over those old comic book stories, it became apparent that it was difficult, if not almost impossible, to get adequate material from just one issue to be enough for one very good episode. It often required story lines from multiple issues. “One particular story I always liked was the two parter from issues #39 and #40, A Blind Man Shall Lead Them, with Daredevil. It was also a real fan favorite. Plus, I thought having Daredevil in there would be very cool. And then, of course, it had the exciting bonus of being a Dr. Doom story. A perfect second season opener. As Stan Lee was fond of saying – Excelsior!”
“With the second episode, we launched into the Inhumans saga. That was the season’s arc and it was kicked off by a three parter,” Tom explained. “My B storyline for that arc was Johnny meeting and subsequently searching for Crystal.”
In the first season, the previous team had already told the “ultimate” Silver Surfer/Dr. Doom story, Doomsday. Tom didn’t like the way it turned out. “For the second season finale, I – admittedly, somewhat arrogantly – decided to redo that story and do it right; to do it as it truly deserved,” said Tom. He used the “Garden of Eden” beginning from Silver Surfer #4 as a way to introduce the Surfer and dovetailed it into the threat of Dr. Doom stealing the Surfer’s powers.
“I wanted to treat the Fantastic Four as if the stakes were always really huge. The Kree, The Skrulls, the Inhumans – they were all part of this epic comic book saga”, said Tom. “I even went to some of the John Byrne stories – to mix things up as well as to help amplify on stories while still staying faithful to the comics,” recalls Tom. “For example, there was this one episode where the FF were going after Ego, and encountered Thor and Galactus. It was one of the best animated shows ever done at that the time. After it aired I got calls from friends, colleagues and other studios – people I didn’t even know – saying that was one helluva good-looking show,” mused Tom. “That high degree of artistic success was why the series’ cancellation proved to be so bittersweet.”
In the first season, each episode had a minute-long introduction from Stan Lee in his office. “Stan is a lively, very personable guy, but I didn’t particularly see the necessity of doing those things in the beginning. I would much have rather used the time for the stories. Well, that didn’t sit particularly well with Stan, and I have to admit I completely understood his position.” said Tom. As a compromise, Tom added 15-second introductions that validated Stan’s contributions and creativity and had him matted in against cool painted backgrounds from the show.
Back then, most series, especially animated ones, were not told in sequential continued story arcs. Stand alone episodes were simply the way it was. Because there was the season long Inhumans continuity, around the eleventh episode of the season, Tom developed a recap episode. He used the Impossible Man (with a stellar voice performance by Jess Harnell of Animaniacs) in which he and Johnny interacted to cleverly segue into clips of the season’s events that had earlier transpired. As the Impossible Man was a more cartoony character, the animating studio, PASI, really went for it and did a great job on this episode, even though there was only 5 or 6 minutes of new animation. “From there we went on to the freeing of the Inhumans and everyone was then up to speed and ready for it.”
For the second season, as Voice Director, Tom kept most of the original voice cast. Brian Austin Green had bowed out as Johnny Storm and was re-cast. But one character Tom really wanted to change was Doctor Doom. “The first actor was certainly good but I felt the character came across as a bit too much of a mustache twirler,” said Tom.
Victor Von Doom was from Latveria, which seemed to be one those Eastern European/Germanic countries. And the aristocrats from those countries were well educated, as if they went to Oxford and thus often spoke with an English accent, Tom reasoned. So he recast Doom with Simon Templeman, whose voice had that nobility and who laced his performance with a unique aspect of condescension and decadence. “He did a memorably great job,” remembered Tom.
With the Inhumans being new characters to the series and so integral to the season’s arc, Tom had a clean slate to cast whomever he thought best for any particular role. Mark Hamill, who impressed everyone with his animated Joker, was a natural for Maximus the Mad. Likewise Star Trek – The Next Generation’s Michael Dorn was the perfect voice for Gorgon. “Black Bolt was easy he was basically mute, so he didn’t need a voice,” joked Tom.
The young Inhuman love interest for the Human Torch, Crystal, was very important to the storyline and she needed to be fresh. She was young, but she wasn’t a kid; she needed to have a womanly quality. “Then I saw supermodel actress Kathy Ireland, on television. I liked the quality of her voice and thought she’d be good.” Even though she wasn’t primarily a vocal actress, Tom was impressed at how hard she worked and how seriously she took it. The results were terrific – the perfect, definitive Crystal. And it all also helped with publicity – as her casting became a story on Entertainment Tonight.
“I always liked casting against type,” explained Tom. “The Silver Surfer was tough. What does he sound like? Stentorian? No. Too easy and cliché an approach.” So, it took a couple of attempts with various actors, but finally Tom cast Eddie (Green Acres) Arnold’s son, Edward Albert, as he felt the philosophical sound to the actor’s voice ideally suited the Surfer’s musings.
Keeping it Fantastic
Tom and his talented crew worked hard to keep the show true to what it was. “To me, the Fantastic Four was the self-proclaimed crown jewel of the Marvel Universe,” remembers Tom. “Even though I may have personally liked Spider-Man more as a kid, the FF was always the big kahuna, with the biggest stakes.”
So for the new main title sequence, Tom wanted to showcase the FF’s rich history. And he would tell it through a great iteration of iconic Kirby covers: FF #1, the tiny FF in the gigantic Dr. Doom’s hand from FF Annual #2, “Beware The Hidden Land” from issue #47, the four panel split screen from a later issue, in which the FF were each individually fighting an android.
He also used this main title to showcase the history of the FF’s costumes. From issue #1 with no costumes, through the 60’s Kirby look, a nod to the Season #1 robin egg’s blue costumes and finally to the then ‘current costumes’ inspired by John Byrne.
Tom did what he always did when creating a main title. He’d listen to the new music provided by the composer, Will Anderson. He’d drive and drive in his car, just trying to viscerally imagine where and how he’d place which visual images that were conjured up by beats with the music.
For the new look of the show, everyone’s first knee jerk reaction was to “do Kirby.” But Tom took issue with that. A big Kirby fan, Tom’s point of view was that if you mimic Jack Kirby’s work, it would run the almost inevitable risk of looking bad. Kirby’s art worked so well because of the strength of his uniquely individual talent. Only Kirby could truly be Kirby and thus there was also a realistic danger that the overseas studio artist working on the show just wouldn’t understand Kirby’s Style. So Tom took another approach. He hired legendary artist John Buscema to redo the characters. He based the show upon John’s also iconic Marvel look and own tenure on FF after Kirby left. In addition, he was able to send the overseas Philippines studio, PASI, that did the actual animation, John Buscema’s book, How the Draw Comics the Marvel Way, as well as the accompanying video of the book to explain it visually. “Buscema was an illustrator. He drew realistically and the anatomy made sense. Especially to the Filipino artists who loved American comic art. Everybody was extremely happy with that approach,” recalls Tom.
Overall, Tom was very pleased with the show. Great stories. Terrific animation. Top notch voice acting. Unfortunately, the show didn’t earn the ratings needed to continue, and many believe that was because fans just thought it would be more of the same from the first season and never gave it a chance.
There were plans for a third season. Tom had developed the arc that focused on Sue’s pregnancy, Agatha Harkness and the birth of Franklin. But Tom wanted to start the season with the Invisible Woman running away with Namor, the Sub-Mariner. “There could be Sub-Mariner action figures, so the toy people liked that”, he explained.
During production, it was mandated that the Hulk guest star in an episode (and also in an episode of the companion series Iron Man), so the progression to the subsequent Hulk series made sense.
The Incredible Hulk series on UPN came next. “I had an overall plan of what I wanted to do with each new series – I wanted to do them (all the Marvel Series) so they all looked very different from one another. My idea was that each series would be unique. Here’s our Gene Colan show, here’s our John Byrne show, or our Ditko or McFarlane show. Like how it would be if you picked out one of the comics from the rack. Not cookie cutter” said Tom.
“As always, it was hard work, but it was gratifying,” said Tom. “I am very proud of what we accomplished. It was one of the few times in television that a studio had truly done right by a comic book.”