Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do Cthulhus Dream of Protoplasmic Sheep?

When you’re a small time comic book artist like me, you treasure any collaborator who is creative, open to suggestions, and pays you on time.

I know a few terrific guys like that, and one of them is the very talented Mr. Phil McClorey.

The stunning cover of Phil McClorey's
new Horror in the West anthology, painted
by the talented Tony Taylor

 In my bizarre little life things often take on a surreal quality, and I usually have a good story about the weird ways in which I’ve met some of my friends. Like the great Ian Williams for instance.

When we were both animation students at Sheridan College, I left my car lights on one morning and returned later that day to a dead battery. Of the few remaining students still there, Ian was the only one with a car. He kindly gave me a jump-start, I thanked him profusely, and we went our separate ways… Until I did the same damn thing the very next day! Ian, in his unique, existential wisdom, decided the universe was shoving us together and that we should be friends. That was quite a leap of faith considering I must have appeared to be a scatterbrained moron, but he was right, of course, and we became very good buddies.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a cute story like that for Phil McClorey.

In fact, I really don’t recall exactly how we met. It may have been at a convention, or he may have gotten my name via the grapevine when looking for artists, I honestly don’t recall.

See, Phil’s not a loud, gregarious, annoying type of person, like me.

He’s just this nice, soft-spoken, unassuming guy who happens to craft creepy horror stories of the most gruesome and disturbing kind. Phil and I have collaborated on a few choice examples of his unnerving little yarns, and I’m still having nightmares.

You can check out those stories, Portal of Its Eye and URL Dead, and many other great tales of terror here:

From "Under the Mountain" Story by Phil McClorey,
art by Jeff McComsey and Jason Copland

Now we come to the reason for this post and the strange dream that led to my inclusion. One evening about a year or so ago, I had one of my typical weirdo nightmares. I saw it as a little movie, playing out before me, like I was the camera rather than a character in the story. (I’m sure any good psychologist would consider the fact I didn’t star in my own dream to be proof of incipient insanity… and who am I to disagree?)

In the dream, I saw this cowboy, in classic Wild West gear, sitting stoically on his horse in the cold drizzle, dutifully watching over his herd. Only, it wasn’t a herd of sheep or cattle. It was something far stranger… and more tentacled…

As usual, I woke up and jotted down the weirdness for future reference.

Less than 48 hours later, I got an E-mail from Phil, telling me he was putting together an anthology of Western-themed horror stories. Freaky, right? I immediately remembered good old Ian Williams and his thoughts on how the universe pushes people together for a greater purpose. It certainly seemed like something cosmic was up that day, though one had to wonder at what arcane powers were behind that little coincidence.

A tense moment from "Brother's Keeper"
Story by AG Pasquella, art by Brian Evinou

So, I drew up the story, Star Calf by name, and Phil included it in his new anthology Horror in the West.

And now that anthology needs some funding to be published. Please check out the Indiegogo fundraiser site here:

And, if you can, drop a few bucks in the kitty, (In exchange for some great perks!) and help foal this eerie little tome out into the world.

As for you, Phil McClorey, thanks for counting me in on this little adventure. “Cthulhu R’lyeh!

Panels from "Star Calf" story and art
by Sam Agro (That's me!)

Sunday, May 6, 2012


The World According to Sam

A few caveats:

Since I’m as old as dinosaur crap, some of this is pretty ancient stuff.

It’s a little Marvel-heavy since for years I followed almost nothing from DC except the Batman and Kirby titles.

And, I got a little carried away with my justifications and they turned into mini-dissertations.

Also, there’s WAY more than 10. (Hey, it’s my list, I’ll make it as long as I want!)

I’m not going to attempt to rank them, I just offer them up as truly great runs.

Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four
This was pretty good, right out of the gate, but I’m thinking especially of the issues starting right around #47, when Joe Sinnott takes over the regular inking chores, right up until Kirby’s departure from Marvel with issue 102. Sinnott starts inking just around the same time Kirby begins to open up his layouts and really go bananas. In my opinion, Joe was the best artist that ever inked Kirby. There are others who inked Jack’s pencils more faithfully, but I think the minor degree of refinement Joe adds is just right.

Nobody ever did giant, cosmic threats from beyond space and time, or balls-out, killer action better than Kirby did then, (or ever). And no one ever thought of so many great characters and ideas in rapid sequence as Stan and Jack did with the Fantastic Four. Galactus, Blastarr, Doc Doom, The Silver Surfer, Black Panther, The Inhumans, The Negative Zone, and on and on and on… Stan’s scripting, which often felt a little too overblown on some of the more down-to-earth titles, (like Daredevil, say), was perfectly matched to the titanic galactic imagery of Jack’s FF.

I’m not going to revisit the debate over who created what here. It will forever be an unknowable truth. All I do know is that the team of Stan and Jack together built something greater than either of them ever did on their own, or with other collaborators.

This is a brilliant and very long run of superior comics.

Who else but Jack 'King' Kirby?

Joss Whedon and John Cassiday’s Astonishing X-men
While I don’t love all the choices Whedon makes with the storietelling here, he certainly knows how to write a scene that keeps you reading. His stories are compelling and he doesn’t skimp on the action. He weaves a fairly interesting tale, and his characterization is top notch. He also returned Kitty Pryde to the lineup, which pleased me enormously.

However, the real story here is Cassiday’s art. Of all the guys who do the “wide screen” style of comics storytelling, (no panels taller than they are wide) he does it best. While Bryan Hitch is certainly effective in that style, his heavily photo-traced approach, while impressive, always leaves me a bit cold. Cassiday on the other hand still delivers a sense of the drawing being pulled from the artist’s imagination. His art is solid, strong and expressive, and has an appealing simplicity, while still being anatomically believable. But it’s the continuity I like best. It’s bold, straightforward and flawlessly paced.

Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury Agent of Shield
This isn’t a long run but it’s pretty amazing. Especially the Who is Scorpio storyline. It was at this point Jim stepped beyond merely aping the Marvel-style Kirby dynamism, and began to add in his own cinematic, and modern-art influenced innovations. It’s a bit more about the art than the writing, but the stories are certainly fun and solid. His experiments in pacing and page layout, and color use, utilizing it for its psychological and visual impact, were progressive. This included the judicious use of limited color and black and white panels. He also does the first 4-page gatefold ever done in the comics. At the time, these comics were truly mind blowing.

Pop art sensibilities nicely
wrangled into comics fun
by the innovative Jim Steranko

If you throw in the few amazing issues of Captain America he did around the same time, and give a nod to a couple of the things Neal Adams was doing, this is really the creative hinge between the Silver Age, and whatever you want to call the next wave of guys who came in. Guys like Wrightson, Jones, Kaluta, Gulacy, Windsor-Smith, Corben, Byrne, Zeck etc, etc.

This is VERY influential stuff.

Startling use of colour
from Jim Steranko

Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck and Gene Day’s Master of Kung-Fu
A few other artists crop up here and there in this astounding run of comics, (Including Toronto’s Jim Craig!) but these three artists all do absolutely fantastic, long chunks of this run. With a solid overall continuity supplied by Doug Moench, the book takes the chop socky movie genre and successfully marries it with the James Bond spy trend in this globe-trotting adventure. It’s all perfectly spiced with the unresolved father-son issues of Shang Chi and his crazy, world domination bent father, Fu Manchu. There’s some nice spicy romance in there too.

A unique layout from Gene Day

Gulacy fully absorbs the inventive storytelling lessons of Steranko and really digs into his rendering and choreography. He hits his stride nicely here. Zeck follows up by injecting a little Buscema-esque layout technique into the storytelling, and quickly sorts out his unique graphic style.

Another amazing page from Mr. Day

But the most interesting, and saddest story, is Gene Day’s. Beginning as the inker for Zeck, he improves at an astounding rate, and eventually takes over penciling AND inking the book. He re-incorporates the Steranko-Gulacy storytelling style and adds a few cool touches of his own.

I don’t know if you guys have seen his stuff, but there are a few issues that are truly incredible. Sadly, he doesn’t get to do nearly enough before his heart explodes from a bad diet, a crushing work schedule, and zero exercise. I truly believe he would have become one of the great modern masters had he lived. Unfortunately, his early death has left him largely forgotten.
An utterly astounding use of panel to panel flow
in this incredible 2-page spread by Gene Day

For those who may be interested, there's a nice little bio-appreciation of Gene Day, written by Dave Olbrich here:

Roy Thomas and John Buscema’s Savage Sword of Conan
I especially love the stories inked by Alfredo Alcala. I chose this series over Roy and John’s run on the color Conan comic for several reasons. First, the larger format and larger originals gave John a bit of room to breathe in the layouts. They are frequently much more interesting than what he was doing on the regular comic. Also, the spicier and more adult parameters of the black and white line allowed them to better capture the spirit of the original REH stories. And, to me at least, the black and white art feels somehow more “right” to present the adventures of Conan. There was no color in the Hyborian age! It was dark and gritty and grey.

Buscema and Alcala make us truly
feel the ancient world of Conan.

No inker captures the crusty and shiny textures of this lost time better than Afredo Alcala. His baroque rendering perfectly evokes a sense of time and place. Buscema is rumoured to have disliked Alfedo’s inks, which he claimed were overdone, but more likely he just felt they overpowered his pencils. However, in my opinion, John’s layouts are powerful enough to be utterly unmistakable even under the frenzied rendering of Alcala’s inks. Tony DeZuniga and Pablo Marcos also do some great inking on the series.

The books get a little weaker later on, but there are about 30 really great issues. Eventually, Roy runs out of REH stories to adapt, and John gets a little “conaned out” from doing both books. Also, Tony DeZuniga, who eventually becomes the regular inker, gets a bit sketchier after embellishing some outstanding issues in the early part of the run.

A lovely cover by Boris

Also the covers were often very awesome. Early issues by Boris Vallejo and later ones by Earl Norem are just marvellous, amongst others.

Jack Kirby’s Kamandi
Okay, a word of explanation. As far as Kirby’s DC tenure goes, I have to admit, that the Fourth World stuff is more in keeping with the creative, explosive, cosmic stuff Kirby did so well. And I do think the New Gods was an amazing effort.

However, the truncated nature of the story, which was always meant to be finite and reach an ultimate conclusion before cancellation cut it short, leaves one with a niggling hunger for a measured resolution. This is a desire that wasn’t really satisfied by Kirby’s later Hunger Dogs addendum. Also the Fourth world companion books Mr. Miracle and The Forever People were not great. Mr. Miracle is serviceable, but without any real spark, and the faux-hippie silliness of The Forever People is just downright laughable.

Anyway… on to Kamandi! Kirby quickly leaves his Planet of the Apes inspired beginnings behind and goes it one (or two, or three) better! He consistently turns out a really fun and unpredictable adventure series, with a few standout stories of particularly high quality. It was during this run that my “realism” prejudiced teenaged mind finally began to understand and appreciate the beauty of all things Kirby.

Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow
In addition to this being some of Neal Adams’ finest, and most expressive, artwork the book has the distinction of being one of the first to effectively apply the problems of the real world to the superhero genre. It explores issues of racism, politics, drug abuse, psychosis, and religious fervor amongst others. Though Stan Lee gave the timely issue of drug use a stab a bit earlier in Spiderman, it gets a much more measured, mature and personalized treatment by O’Neil and Adams here. Plus it still has some cool intergalactic stuff thrown in to spice things up. Again, this level of realism in the writing and the art was highly influential for later comics creators.

Len Wein and Berni Wrightson’s Swamp Thing
This was Wrightson’s only tenure on a regular comic title. Even though he eventually cracked under the scheduling strain of penciling and inking an entire book in such a detailed style, it is an exceptional visual achievement. Only one issue, where other inkers were brought in to speed up production, suffers in lost quality.

The stories by Wein run the gamut from amazing to just passable, but there are several great ones. The origin issue is very solid, and has all the moving pathos that Marvel’s Man-Thing lacked. The Archane issues are terrific, and nicely set the stage for Alan Moore’s later use of the character. The Ravenwood Witches, and the Tunnel 13 issues are just great too.

Bernie's bat will always
be my personal favourite.

However, the standout for me is Swampy’s trip to Gotham and his dealings with Batman. Say what you will about Neal Adams, Gene Colan, Norm Beyfogle, Jim Lee, Dick Giordano, David Mazzuchelli, etc. I think this is the coolest Batman ever drawn! He is dark and creepy, and powerful, and both the rendering and graphic use of the cape are utterly astounding. The book is really Berni’s baby, and he goes to town. With the exception of some of the black and white stories he did later for Warren publishing, this is his finest comics work. Dripping in black and covered in cobwebs, it’s moody and creepy as hell! His later stuff even on Batman lacks the energy and focus of this seminal series.

Alan Moore’s and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing
Especially the issues inked by John Tottleben. Personally I think Alan Moore was the only 80’s “British Invasion” writer who lived up to the hype. (Neil Gaiman can bite me!) With his inventive and exploratory take on Swamp Thing, Moore really opened up the character’s potential. By making him a vegetable god, rather than just a swamp monster, Moore pushed the limits of imagination and horror. Here, Moore is just a damn fine writer, slugging his first big American gig out of the ballpark. Bissette’s art, while lacking somewhat in anatomical solidity, lacks nothing in terms of mood, creepiness and inventive layout.

The story about the fear-eating Ouija board monster still sends shivers up my spine. Bbrrrrr…

Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One
Although this is a limited series rather than a “run”, I have to include it here. This is Miller before he got all weird after 9-11 and Mazzuchelli at his very best, with a stripped down, Toth-like rendering style and some perfectly paced storytelling. A joy to read, and an intriguing insight into Batman, before his experience afforded him the unassailable confidence his character has today.

Unfortunately Miller’s more recent take on Batman, with Jim Lee, is a disaster. I know that this is supposedly a “re-imagining” of the character, but he’s not a character that interests me in any way. Mazzuchelli moved out of mainstream comics to do some offbeat weird stuff with some idea of greater depth and meaning, but for me it’s all just comes off as self indulgent and inaccessible. Now he does no comics at all. What a shame!

Read these poor lost souls when they are at their very best in Year One.

Frank Miller’s Daredevil
I like both runs here. The earlier one, where Miller writes and pencils with inks by Klaus Janson, is terrific, and the later issues with Mazzuchelli really rock. This is the one where Frank really put all the pieces together. The Film Noir drenched dialogue and art style, the staccato pacing, the balletic battles over a gritty cityscape, the trials and tribulations of a superhero with no real super powers. Just great!

His meeting with Captain America is absolutely classic! But the big ones are, of course, The Electra stories, which are fantastic, and Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Born Again storyline. Simply the best Daredevil comics ever made, in my estimation. The subsequent, terrible, photo-manipulated Alex Maleev art makes me want to puke up a camel.

Joe Kubert’s Tarzan
What can you say? A consummate professional takes on the one of the greatest adventure characters ever created. The issues adapting the original ERB stories definitely come out on top here, but they are all fun, terrific, adventure stories drawn by one of comics very best artists in his prime.

Savage, untamed and awesome
Tarzan by the incredible Joe Kubert.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon
Much is said about the brilliance of Terry and the Pirates, but for my money, I prefer Canyon. Caniff has already hit his stride in terms of his drawing style, which was still developing in the early Pirates stuff. The best chunk here is from it’s beginning just after the second world war, until about 1955. The adventure, world politics and romance elements are at their best balance during this time. As the strip aged, the soap opera themes eventually took center stage, but for several years it was a great strip, with amazing art and terrific, punchy dialogue.

“Tell them to go fry their hats!”

Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men (Including the year Paul Smith drew it after Byrne left)
Claremont’s at his best here, before the whole thing got too complicated with myriad false implanted memories for half the characters, before the time travel stuff got out of hand, and before the cast got so huge it bogged down the storytelling. I almost like the Paul Smith issues best because he had this stripped down style I think worked nicely, and they did a lot with Kitty Pryde, a character of whom I’m very fond. But Byrne’s run here, and his later FF run, is about the best stuff he ever did before he became an irredeemable hack.

Will Eisner’s Spirit
Well duh…

Nocenti, Romita Jr. and Williamson’s Daredevil
What great comics! Nocenti’s stories have a nice, skewed, alternate point of view, and cover some interesting new territory. Romita Jr. is at his peak! Vigorous, lively, clear as a bell storytelling. The best mix of Kirby dynamism, Toth simplicity and Buscema solidity. Later some of that structural and anatomical integrity gives way to speed somewhat, but he’s great here.

However, Al Williamson is the real lynchpin on this book. In his last regular art gig, his flawless inking adds even more anatomical solidity, and his black spotting is perfect. Having achieved a nicely loose, but surprisingly accurate, inking style in his later years, he pulls these great Romita Jr. pencils up to an astounding level of facility. (And yes, the Lee Weeks art on Daredevil is awesome too. In fact I think Williamson inked some of that too. Weeks is one of the greatest pencilers ever, and sadly underrated, as far as I’m concerned.)

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg
Howard was great here. He was really stretching the boundaries of storytelling and content, and nicely weaving satire in with the action and adventure. He uses a simpler, looser rendering style on the art here which is ideal to the subject matter. Though he later takes this sketchy approach too far, (in my opinion), here it’s nicely balanced, evocative and expressive. His progressive use of sound effects is very interesting too. Also, it’s just downright hilarious. Howard does a lot of experimenting, both visually and in terms of content, and it isn’t always successful. But hey, at least he’s trying stuff! And when it works it’s awesome.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (And related milieu.)
What’s not to love here? It’s a crazy, red-skinned, devil-man with a big gun who battles spooky supernatural threats along side a team of weirdoes, mutants, and military men. Mike’s art is like the marvelous comics love-child of Frank Frazetta and Alex Toth, with a high contrast sense of mood and design that is second to none. Mike has also chosen outstanding collaborators for the expanded Hellboy line, like Duncan Fegredo and Guy Davis. This is just awesome, fun comics.

Honorable Mentions
Walt Simonson’s Thor
Baron and Rude’s Nexus
Abuli and Bernet’s Torpedo
Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales
Lee and Kirby’s Captain America
Wolfman and Colan’s Tomb of Dracula
Lee and Romita’s Spiderman
Dave Stevens’s Rocketeer

Well, that’s it. Take it as you will.

Ultimately, what I learned from this is…I read too damn many comics…