In this week’s guest blog, Milo Miller of Hero Tomorrow Comics tells us of the secret origin of his comic book hero, The Apama … and his own secret origin, as well, which involves Steve Gerber, the Man-Thing, and a certain fool-killing vigilante. Take it way, Milo!
I’ve always considered myself a comic book reader. Collector? Not so much. I’ve got tons of comics — a lot of Bronze Age gold that by all rights should be getting ready to pay for college, finance my next feature film, or — at the very least — purchase a jet pack (or two.)
Hulk 181, Spidey 129, Giant Size X-Men. They’re all there & then some; bought ‘em right off the racks.
Then my twin brother and I read them to shreds of course. It’s not like I cut out the value stamps, right Paul? But I might as well have — creased covers, broken bindings, an inevitable grape jelly stain. Ughh.
In the film I co-wrote, Hero Tomorrow, a comic shop customer asks the proprietor — “Is that a comic book or a napkin?” and I regretfully have to admit here, “Yes, my writing does include many autobiographical elements.”
But mostly those books took such an incredible beating because I just loved the stories, the storytelling. And to be honest those landmark books we always picked up — fabulous first appearances, amazing origins, big premiere issues — aren’t all that indicative of the comics I was most attracted to.
My favorite books lived in the shadows; low-selling, anything-goes straight-up weirdness where creator’s often seemed to challenge an audience to follow on a trip that would inevitably end badly (at least from a commercial perspective.) Given the choice I would always take Mister Miracle over Superman, the Creeper over Gotham’s Dark Knight, Luke Cage over Peter Parker’s alter-ego.
It’s those pre-Star Wars books that led me to co-write my own retro/throwback/homage comic Apama The Undiscovered Animal: the story of a Cleveland-born Hungarian ice cream truck driver who unlocks the spiritual force of the most savage beast man has never known.
But it wasn’t only inspiration those Bronze Age beauties provided; they also presented the opportunity for me to meet & ultimately join forces with someone who would become one of my best friends, partner-in-crime, and greatest creative collaborators.
Because the day I met Ted Sikora at the University of Akron I told him all about one of the favorite books in my own longbox graveyard. And things were never the same.
Ted and I were taking a Video Production course together. I was a slumming English Major; he had just left Accounting to take some Advertising & Media classes. We both started talking comics almost immediately —- that uncanny geek-sense pinging as soon as we were in close proximity. I had drifted away from comics to a large degree; I still frequently visited my own accumulation but had lost the thread in the early eighties and hadn’t been actively buying new books in a long time.
Ted on the other hand was —- and still is — a life-long collector, a bag & board guy who hasn’t missed an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since 1975.
So in my desire to make a keen impression on a new acquaintance I played my trump card early in the conversation. “You’ve probably never heard of him but my favorite character of all-time is a guy named The Foolkiller.”
Now Ted surprised me. Because, of course, he knew who the Foolkiller was. Unknown to me he’d made an appearance in Amazing to begin with and -— more shocking to me -— Ted told me there was a new Foolkiller mini-series that had just started hitting the racks.
After class that day Ted and I booked over to a local shop and attacked the longboxes with a vengeance. I picked up some of the other Fookliller appearances -— the afore-mentioned Spider-Man, two-issues of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Omega, a Defenders story. And I also purchased the first two issues of the current mini-series. Just like that, I was back in the game.
And I got Ted to purchase two of the greatest comic books of all-time: Man-Thing #3 & 4.
Ted and I have been friends ever since. After graduation we co-wrote the script for our award-winning indie film Hero Tomorrow which Ted would direct to much acclaim. The film is a comic-shop romance with a super-hero twist about a struggling comic book creator who is desperately trying to break into the industry by promoting his original creation Apama. Apama is the “undiscovered animal,” a creature shrouded in mystery, a crypto-zoological puzzle that puts Bigfoot to shame.
The humor in the film comes from the creator’s inability to see that while characters based on bats, spiders and wolverines have an instant connection with an audience, one based on an animal that doesn’t exist fails to resonate.
In the film his girlfriend makes him a costume based on his creation for a Halloween party and in no time he’s out on the streets of Cleveland “fighting crime.” (I use the quotations since there is very little fighting and even less crime in the actual film).
For a micro-budget indie the film was very successful. We played a lot of festivals across the globe and it was at the post-screening Q&A’s that we kept hearing the same thing, “What’s with this Apama character?”
We didn’t need further incentive -— we’d each been dreaming of taking a crack at doing a comic since we were kids. And so began the ongoing series Apama The Undiscovered Animal.
The book has been getting some great reviews and the Volume 1 Collection of Issues 1-5 just got picked up by Diamond Distribution. It’s something I’m really proud of and captures many of the fun Bronze Age elements I grew up loving.
But enough about Apama; I’m running out of time and I’ve still got to tell you about two of the greatest comic books of all-time: Man-Thing #3 and 4!
I originally traded for beat-up copies from my old neighborhood pal Tim Engleman. He’d colored in the eyes of most of the characters with ballpoint pen for some reason. Paging through it today it strikes me as slightly unsettling; as if the detective investigating a rash of local serial killings will extract this from my accumulation to a thrilling declaration of “we’ve found our man!” Thank God Tim also was kind enough to scrawl his name across the cover as well, giving me at least a shot to slip the hangman’s noose.
I suspect the trade involved sports cards of some kind or maybe an early Blue Oyster Cult album that I was still too young to get into.
Regardless I felt I had won big.
Steve Gerber is (for me) the quintessential Bronze Age talent and -— backed up with some fantastic art by Val Mayerik — nowhere does his quirky poetry and off-the-wall storytelling come into more thrilling focus than this frantic tale of the Foolkiller.
The cover is wonderfully apocalyptic -— attacking alligators, flaming wreckage, a swamp filled with screaming survivors that look like they just woke up in Hell. And it only gets better from there.
My favorite aspect of The Man-Thing in general is simply the jaw-dropping audacity that the character could carry a book. He -— it —- is everything a protagonist shouldn’t be: reactive, mostly passive, barely possessing a consciousness. In the best stories -— like these issues -— the ‘most startling swamp creature of all!’ sort of just shambles on stage as an after-thought, appearing to fulfill some sort of Comics Code mandate for minimum page appearance for a title character.
After the man-muck-monster ties up loose ends from last ish in some action-packed first pages the tale really starts cooking. A couple of bikers from the Skullcrushers —- also hold-overs from Man-Thing #2 -— hit the road after making peace with Richard Rory, the lifelong loser of the supporting cast. There at the bottom of page 11, in the distance we can just make out a figure standing boldly in the middle of the road.
Then, on the page turn after a couple of ads, we’re introduced to what is, frankly, an incredible example of visual storytelling and what can happen in the synergy between writer and artist.
Our first good look of the Foolkiller -— a perfect low-angle shot of a confident and dashing character -— part pirate, part cavalier, all WTF — is accompanied by a brilliant statement of purpose: “They come. All the days of their lives have led to this moment. It was ordained long ago in Heaven that this day they would meet -— the Foolkiller!”
In these next couple of pages every panel is a home run. This “Holy Warrior” stops the two cyclists with a purifying blast -— the “energy of the just and righteous” -— that is so over-the-top and devastating in effect that it can only be the weapon of a madman.
Gerber makes it clear —- even through the satire and absurdity -— that every great villain is a hero in his own mind; but Mayerik’s close-ups leave no doubt —- this guy is friggin’ nuts!
“Sometimes I fear,” FK muses, “that when my killing of fools is done -— only I shall be left alive.” Gerber is firing on all cylinders; the entire issue if full of these incredible, dead-pan hilarious observations. The voice of the character is so strong right from the rip I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. And then when he hands out his calling card demanding his future victims repent, ah brilliance!
Issue #4 has the Foolkiller’s origin which just ups the wacky ante even higher. Born ‘a cripple’ Ross Everbest’s father was killed on the day of his birth during the final days of WW2 while his mother perished as a military nurse in Korea on another of his birthdays -— ‘cut down by a commie bomb!’
Confined to a wheelchair Ross studies the art of war and worships all things military. Which one might think would result in a great tactical mind, an ability that would translate to a strategic advantage in combat but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Foolkiller’s escapades are marked by missteps, mistakes, and operative failure—- he is nothing if not an incredibly violent screw-up.
Everbest discovers his true calling when he’s miraculously healed at a revival meeting. Becoming a soldier in the service of the Almighty he realizes he must be an active agent against the fools -— ‘criminals … protesters, dope pushers … mocking the Lord and the military.”
Add in a betrayal, a corpse encased in a glass shrine, and a strong sense of environmental consciousness to the murderous mayhem and you’ve got classic Gerber. There are so many great little elements along the way -— Foolkiller’s mobile HQ in a the back of an ACME moving truck, a ‘red herring’ sports car, Rory being on the killer’s hit list for playing “blasphemous” music while a disc jockey in Ohio.
And then, within pages of his introduction, the Foolkiller is dead. (By his own hand, of course.) “What a lousy way to die … even for a killer …! But maybe it’s poetic justice … sort of … even if we never know what the rhyme was.”
You can take the Punisher, Wolverine, Deadpool —- any of those characters who have followed that twisted trajectory from hyper-violent take-no-prisoner psychopath to the side of your kid’s lunchbox; I knew I’d found the unstable, rage-fueled killer for me. To this day I think Foolkiller missed his shot at the big time by not more than a degree or two, missed the refrigerator magnet, beach towel, and action-figures and wound up in semi-obscurity instead, buried -— not too deeply —- in many a longbox graveyard.
Punish a PBJ today!
Thanks to Paul for letting me pinch-hit this month; it was a lot of fun. Originally I had contacted him in hopes of getting some promotional attention for the Apama Vol 1 release. But given the opportunity I found myself unable to resist the urge to waltz through some of my own tombstones if you will.
Maybe that says more about our book than any amount of shilling I could do otherwise.
Welcome to another installment of The Dollar Box, where I look at comics with a cover price of a dollar or less. After previously spotlighting issues of Strange Tales (1966), The Amazing Spider-Man (1963), and the Silver Surfer (1968), this month I look at modern comic book — Marvel Two-In-One #1, from the futuristic year of 1973!
This issue carries a cover price of .20, and while it won’t require a bank loan to acquire today like those other books I’ve covered, you should still expect to pay $30-$40 for a copy in decent condition. To be fair, Marvel Two-In-One #1 isn’t a terribly significant issue — there are no first appearances or lasting pop culture influences in this book. But it is a solid Bronze Age comic book tale, told by two masters of their craft, and it has more than a little sentimental value for your humble narrator.
Marvel Two-In-One grew out of a two-part run in Marvel Feature, copying the success of Marvel Team-Up, where Spider-Man was paired with a guest-star-of-the-month for what was usually a single-issue adventure. For Marvel Two-In-One, the headlining character would be Benjamin J. Grimm, better known as The Thing of the Fantastic Four, an outsized personality more than ready to step from the ensemble of his original book and star in adventures of his own. Two-In-One would never be as popular or successful as Marvel Team-Up, but the book had its moments, and in its hundred-issue run would feature work by John Byrne, George Perez, and a young Frank Miller.
Author Steve Gerber spent little setting the tone and format for the new book — though as was often the case with Gerber, he didn’t take an easy route. The cover of the book promises “Monster vs. Monster … while a world trembles!” and most readers would have been happy to see Ben and his inaugural co-star, Man-Thing, pound the stuffing out of each other for nineteen pages. But Gerber wasn’t interested in what was easy. He wasn’t even interested in superheroes throwing punches at each other, and so that awesome action promised on the cover amounts to a scant half-page in the finished story, as the Thing punches through the Man-Thing, and comes away with a fist-full of slime and an appreciation of his foe’s hellish existence.
What do we get for the rest of the issue? Characterization!
Later authors of Two-In-One would tie themselves in knots contriving to bring their characters and bad guys together, but Gerber goes right at it, having Grimm get a mad on after reading tales of a “Man-Thing” stealing Ben’s good name in the Florida swamps.
Two pages later and Ben’s on a southbound bus, still fuming.
Now of course it is ridiculous that Ben would ride a bus to Florida to reclaim his naming rights from Man-Thing …but in a Steve Gerber world populated by talking ducks and an encounter-group masquerading as a superhero team called The Defenders, this kind of behavior was perfectly sane. More important — it was human, and it was in writing the human dimension of his characters where Gerber excelled. Steve looked past the orange rock monster in blue trunks and saw the insecure man within, and with this deft bit of characterization preyed on that man’s insecurities to both set up his story and give us affectionate insight on our hero.
With Ben lost in reverie, the action shifts to some distant planet, where the Molecule Man breathes his last, but not before inspiring his son to seek vengeance on the Fantastic Four. A new Molecule Man emerges from a bath of pseudoscientific radiation, now able to extend his control over matter itself to living flesh. Molecule Man skips the bus, instead turning his own cells into “living magnets” that will draw him to wherever the Thing may be, and is surprised to find himself in a Florida swamp, and even more surprised to run into Man-Thing, who curiously follows the villain as he stalks away in disgust.
From there it remains only to get Ben into the action, again in the most direct way — Ben intimidates his bus driver into making an unscheduled stop, and jumps from an overpass right into the path of the Molecule Man.
It’s all very pat, and more than a little weird, sounding almost like one of the Say What?! features at StashMyComics. But Gerber makes it work, charming us with Ben’s cranky speechifying and keeping the story moving fast enough that we don’t really have a chance to raise an objection.
Ben doesn’t stand a chance against a foe who can control the building blocks of matter. So quickly does Molecule Man gain the upper hand that he elects to transform both Thing and Man-Thing back to their original human forms, that they might be “naught but impotent observers” while he destroys the Fantastic Four.
All of which gives Ben Grimm and the Man-Thing’s alter-ego — Ted Sallis — a chance to talk for a page or two. They recap their origins in a non-expository way, though Ben soon grows tired of talking, saying Ted talks almost as much as Reed Richards, and grouchily warning Sallis that he’d better shut his trap, saying, “I like ya too much to wanna feel I gotta knock yer teeth out to keep my sanity!”
Before long the Molecule Man is back, his plan to kill the rest of the Fantastic Four undone by his malfunctioning wand, but he picks a proxy out of the crowd in a nearby town, transforming an innocent bystander into a Mr. Fantastic look-alike, then stretching the poor soul’s body until it snaps in half. It’s a shocking bit of violence, out of character with the rest of the story, but it is vintage Gerber, who delighted in flipping from surrealism to realism from panel to panel, never afraid to raise the stakes or splash some blood if it drove home the depravity of his bad guys (a year later, Gerber would have racist Sons of the Serpent scumbags burn an old man to death in a tenement building in the pages of The Defenders).
Ben is taken aback by this murder, and things start to happen fast. Possibly for no real reason other than that he is running out of pages to complete his tale, Gerber has the Molecule Man change Ben and Sallis back into their monster forms, just in time to throw a couple punches at each other, before putting paid to our villain when he loses the handle on his wand.
And then it is over, with Ben stalking off to next month’s unrelated adventure with the Sub-Mariner, and Man-Thing returning to his swamp, bereft of identity or even memory of his brief reprieve. Marvel Two-In-One #1 is an admittedly slight tale, thin on action and thus not taking best advantage of penciler Gil Kane’s skills, but I still like it, mostly for Gerber’s ear for dialogue, masterfully expressed through our rough-hewn hero. A comics writer of rare intelligence, Steve Gerber always brought his A-game, even when he was making it up as he went along, and his work is among the best produced during the “anything goes” period when Roy Thomas took over from a distracted Stan Lee as Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief.
Marvel Two-In-One #1 isn’t the greatest book of its era — its not even among the best books Steve Gerber would ever write — but I do think it’s the top single issue of Marvel Two-In-One, whatever its faults (and here is my review of the other ninety-nine issues of Marvel Two-In-One!). But for one of my favorite writers, writing one of my favorite characters, kicking off one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” superhero series, I find it irresistible, particularly given my own fleeting personal experience working with Steve Gerber. Should you find it in a dollar box of your own, I hope you will give Marvel Two-In-One #1 a shot …and if you can’t find a copy of your own, a little bird tells me you can take a peak over at the always-groovy Mars Will Send No More site!
IN THREE WEEKS: #115 The Purge!
- Marvel’s Johnny Blaze : The Ghost Rider (superheroesframe.wordpress.com)
- Look Back At MAN-THING (2005) Concept Art & Storyboards (comicbookmovie.com)
- I am an evil supervillain and my power is… advertising! (wklondon.typepad.com)
- NYCC: A Look at the Marvel Announcements (comicbooked.com)
- Feld Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment Unveil Exclusive New Details on Marvel Universe Live! – the Ultimate Marvel Arena Spectacular – at New York Comic-con (nerdsblog.org)
- AWESOME-tober-fest 2013: Marvel Zombies (2005-current) (paxholley.net)
Last week I wrote about Steve Gerber’s Defenders, a 1970s comic that was as singular as it was strange. That book stuck with me as a kid, and partially inspired by Steve’s crazy work, I would go on to have a comic book writing career of my own. My time in comics was unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, but one of the highlights was working (however briefly) with Steve on his original creation, Sludge.
Having helped launch Image Comics, the Malibu Comics brain trust had first-hand evidence that an original superhero universe could carve out a chunk of a Marvel and DC-dominated market. In 1993 they decided to go for it in a big, splashy way with the Ultraverse, an all new, full-color superhero line co-created by some of the bigger name writers in the business, like Steve Englehart, Mike Barr … and Steve Gerber.
For my own part, I was pretty burned out as a comic book writer by the time the Ultraverse came around, and I wouldn’t have had the name value to participate in the launch even if I had been up to the task. But it was obvious that the Ultraverse was going to be the only game in town and I worked hard around the edges trying to land a book. Once the line matured and deadlines started to slip, I managed to secure a couple fill-in assignments for Ultraverse inventory stories.
One assignment was a two-parter for Rune, which I’ve already examined here on Longbox Graveyard. Another was a fill-in story for Steve Gerber’s Sludge.
There are folks who still remember the Ultraverse, but there isn’t a lot on the web about Sludge. Sludge was a corrupt New York cop named Frank Hoag who was killed after finally standing up to the mob, then rose again as the sewer-monster, Sludge. He lurked in the shadows, was virtually indestructible, melted flesh with his touch, and revealed his inner struggle through story captions demonstrating his torturous thought process.
Challenged by Malibu Editor-in-Chief Chris Ulm to create an original monster comic series, Steve Gerber said that the concept for Sludge came to him during an epiphany at the Arizona conference where the Ultraverse was born. Despite his past association with Man-Thing, Sludge wasn’t Gerber trying to out-do himself with another swamp monster, or an attempt to fill a certain niche in the Ultraverse line. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to jump to those conclusions, but for Gerber, at least, Sludge was its own thing.
Marketing challenges aside, anyone thinking Gerber would under-serve his own creation as “just another swamp monster” was barking up a very wrong tree. One of the things I learned from Steve was how the first responsibility of a creator is to respect his own work. If you go into a job thinking it is a lesser assignment or a knock-off or a joke or whatever, then you can’t possibly do a good job. More to the point — why are you wasting your creative time doing that kind of work?
Steve was completely locked in on Sludge, as he was with all of his work. He walled out the world, didn’t care if people thought the character was another Man-Thing, didn’t care if the book was selling well, didn’t care if the Ultraverse was going to stick or not. Actually, saying Steve “didn’t care” gives entirely the wrong impression. In my experience, Steve did care — passionately, deeply, maybe too much — about every aspect of his work. What I mean to say is that Steve did his best to keep those external and possibly negative influences from impacting the work. It was pride, and professionalism, sure, but it was more than that. I think it was a kind of idealism, all the more impressive for a writer who had been chewed up by a nasty fight with Marvel over ownership of Howard the Duck. Another creator might have expected Malibu to “pay for his divorce,” but Gerber seemed to put that earlier heartbreak behind him, and put the energy into his work.
Or maybe Steve just had a mature understanding that getting even ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere.
I first worked with Steve as the editor and writer of Ultra Monthly. The idea behind Ultra Monthly was that it was a news magazine from inside the Ultraverse — it told the story of the Ultraverse through news stories and “photographs,” relating only what an outsider would be able to divine about the super-powered derring-do of the Ultraverse. I guess it was kind of like Marvels, except that Ultra Monthly was a news magazine, and not a comic (and we didn’t have a couple guys named Busiek and Ross on board, either). Anyway, the point was to show a “street” level view of the Ultraverse, but it was also to promote the characters in the line, and that proved especially challenging for characters that lurked in the shadows of this new fictional world.
I don’t think I ever got a Sludge story into Ultra Monthly. Each creator had to sign off on anything I did with their characters, and Steve was adamant that Sludge was a legendary figure, like Bigfoot, and he just shouldn’t appear in the magazine. My pleas that Bigfoot was a frequent cover boy for the National Enquirer (and that, after all, I was just trying to promote Steve’s book) fell on deaf ears — Sludge appearing in the news, even fictional news, didn’t fit Steve’s concept of the character and he wouldn’t budge. The only people who saw Sludge were the guys he killed and the down-and-out bums who shared an alley with the monster. Sludge was Gerber’s baby, and Steve was true to his character even if it ultimately might hurt his sales.
I don’t know as Steve remembered me from Ultra Monthly, but when Malibu decided it was time to commission inventory stories to fill gaps when Ultraverse deadlines were missed, Steve didn’t object to my taking a crack at Sludge. But neither did he make it easy. As was the case with my Rune story, I first had to submit a concept, and later a full plot — more preliminary work than I would have done on a book of my own. To avoid conflicting with the book’s continuing continuity, I decided to do a flashback story about Frank Hoag’s earliest days on the police force. I wanted to find out what had turned rookie Frank Hoag into the corrupt cop we saw get gunned down by his mafia masters in Sludge #1.
I sweated over my plot, sent it into Malibu, and kept my fingers crossed. I still have the notes Steve sent back:
Notes for Paul O’Connor RE: Sludge Inventory issue “Shadow of a Chance”
Too many liberties are taken with the character of Sludge rather than dealing with the difficulties the character presents.
*Sludge is not driven by vengeance. Ever. He considers it a waste of time. He could be driven by rage or anger (a thin but important line) or even by his selective urge to see justice done.
*Sludge’s recollections seem perfectly clear throughout the story. They wouldn’t be. His confusion doesn’t automatically go away when he thinks about the past. Another way should be found to do the flashbacks … Maybe they should come from Emily, and not Sludge — may not work either, just a thought.
A lot of time is spent describing the characters’ emotions in almost Wagnerian terms. While that is okay where Emily is concerned, Sludge doesn’t engage in much pathos or talk at length about his feelings (or anything else). Fire the guy walking around in the Sludge suit and put the REAL Sludge at the center of the story.
Think about it, mull it over, think about it some more.
Doing the math, I notice Steve was about my age now when he offered me that direction. I wonder if I would be as helpful to writers trying to work under my direction today?
Being as I was a hack writer who just wanted to get paid and get onto the next book, Steve’s notes drove me crazy. But I could respect the way Steve was protecting his creations. It was a message that stuck with me and I credit it as an early drop of water that started to erode the rocks I had piled atop myself in what was to date a miserable career as a writer and creator. I took Steve’s notes to heart, re-wrote my plot, received approval, and wrote the full script. It was my work, under Steve’s strict direction … so my story isn’t exactly a lost Steve Gerber Sludge script (for that you need to go here), but it is kinda sorta the next best thing.
the man himself!
My Sludge script was never published, though I’m sure I was paid for it. I don’t think it even had an artist assigned. Reading it again, after all these years, it seems to me a nice piece of writing, but not so great a comic book script. Too much of the action is internal, and too much relies on a fill-in artist being able to wring convincing and sometimes subtle emotions out of the characters. While it would have been nice to get another story into print, this tale really is better experienced in the mind — its unlikely the story would have been improved by pencils. I’ve put the script up for your review HERE — give it a read and see what you think.
I lost touch with Steve after submitting my script. We were never close — our relationship was limited to these few Ultraverse jobs — but I always liked Steve, and admired the man and his work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Steve gave me a gift in that he helped me understand how hard it is to do quality work (a lesson Lorne Lanning would finish drilling into me during my years at Oddworld Inhabitants). Steve also demonstrated how to be professional and dignified as a creator, even if “all” you are writing about is a talking duck or a mucky sewer monster. I was saddened when Steve passed, both because I enjoyed his work as a fan, and because of our brief professional association. The comics world — and the world as a whole — was a better place when Steve Gerber was in it.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #35 Beneath The Longbox Shortbox