Friday Flashback #049 …

2018 saw the passing of both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the co-creators of Spider-Man. The hero is one of the most recognizable and popular in the world, and a lot of that comes from Lee and Ditko’s original 40 or so Spidey stories (38 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, plus Amazing Fantasy #15 and 2 Annuals), which built the world of Peter Parker and his friends and family. Everything else is derivative, done by other talents, sometimes well, and sometimes well … not so well. This shot is from the Marvel Universe of Super Heroes exhibit at MoPOP in Seattle. I like to think that’s Stan silhouetted in the window on the left, and John Romita and Steve Ditko on the right (not that Romita and Ditko every worked together). The exhibit itself is amazing and runs until March 3, so hurry if you want to see it!

Want to see all my latest photos? Follow me on Instagram @gg92118

And Lo … There Shall Be a Quest!

I went on a little personal quest during Comic-Con 2018. For a while now, I’ve been obsessed—there is no other word—with Fantastic Four #45 from 1965. It’s a book I read when it first came out, and—technically—still own, although it’s present location is with my brother, 2,500 miles away. To find a second copy of that book is a bit pricey, because it was the issue that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced The Inhumans. Even though the ABC TV series tanked, the Inhumans hold a special spot for comics fans: It was in the beginning of an unprecedented (then AND now) creative streak for Lee and Kirby (or any comics creator or team of creators), which saw the birth of not only the Inhumans, but the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Black Panther, and more, all within the space of about a year. The Fantastic Four was Marvel Comics’ flagship title, and it has never been better than it was from issues #44-94, right before Kirby left to go to DC Comics and start his epic Fourth World saga (Forever People, New Gods, Mister Miracle, and—believe it or not—Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen).

But I digress.

I found a copy of FF #45 at Comic-Con this year, at a fairly reasonable price and in decent condition. That cover is probably one of my favorite Kirby covers ever (and probably my fave FF cover) and the last panel of the book—introducing the leader of the Inhumans, Black Bolt—blew my 10 year-old-mind.

Over the years, I’ve collected Marvel’s reprint series, Marvel Masterworks and recently upgraded to their new format, Marvel Epic Collections. I have a lot of these FF books reprinted, and the reprints are—for the most part—cleaned-up and much more “perfect,” printing-wise, than the original Marvels. Looking at FF #45, I realized how badly the Marvel Comics of that era were printed: Colors off-register resulting in blurry art, shoddy newsprint paper that feels like it’s a few years away from being a pile of dust, but—on the plus side—that old comics smell. (If someone bottles it, they can call it “Nostalgia.”) But this is what we had, and we didn’t know any better, and besides that, the real charm and appeal was on the page. It didn’t matter how it was printed or what paper it came on … the story and art were the thing.

Marvel was famous in those days for building a community of fans through its comics, including via letters columns and their “Bullpen Bulletins” page in each issue. In 1965 there were 10 Marvel Comics that featured superheroes: Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Journey into Mystery (Thor), Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (okay, not a superhero, but a war comic), Strange Tales (Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Strange), Tales of Suspense (Iron Man and Captain America), Tales to Astonish (Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk), and X-Men. And you kept up with each month’s comics by reading these pages, finding out what was coming out, and what to look forward to picking up.

Quest_04That copy of Fantastic Four #45 that I purchased at Comic-Con was cover-dated December 1965 (like the issue of Avengers #23, pictured at right), which meant it probably came out in September of that year. (Comics were cover-dated three or so months in advance in the hope that retailers—which were newsstands, mom-and-pop grocery stores, drug stores— NO comic book shops!—would keep the books displayed longer.) So What If, I asked, in the great comic book tradition, I found all 10 Marvel superhero comics from that one month in 1965, all cover-dated December? I would have a microcosm of Marvel Comics.

And off I went. During Comic-Con I found all 10 of them, and purchased 8 of them. Two of them—Amazing Spider-Man #31 and X-Men #15—are a bit pricey (Spidey has the first appearance of Gwen Stacey and Harry Osborne … not sure what the deal is with that particular issue of X-Men). As usual, I looked for solid reading comics. I don’t believe in “mint” books and I find the practice of having books “professionally graded” and sealed in plastic abhorrent (don’t get me started).

Today I sat down and looked through the 8 comics I purchased and re-bagged and boarded them (comics collecting is horrible for us OCD-types … it all has to match, dammit!). The Marvels are a bit annoying date-wise; while they’re all cover-dated December—some of them seem to be ahead (or behind) the others. The Bullpen Bulletins pages don’t match up, the Mighty Marvel Checklist and house ads show different cover-dated books as being on sale NOW. So the December cover-date thing is a bit of a misnomer.

But the bottom line is this: This is, essentially, one month of Marvel Comics from fall of 1965 (minus the romance and western titles), a small time machine with a one-way trip to the past, a past in which you could go to your favorite newsstand and buy these 10 books for $1.20 (12 cents each!). I was 10 in 1965, probably just starting fifth grade when these books came out. They contain such an incredible rush of nostalgia for me, and even though my brother has some of our original run of comics from that era, which we purchased off our local newsstands—including Fantastic Four #45—having this small run of books warms my tired, old heart. They are evidence of a renaissance in comics, a time of incredible creativity (from just a handful of creators) that spawned a multi-billion dollar franchise that is still going strong today and known the world over. They’re also remnants—let’s say mementos—of my childhood and reminders of a real, vibrant sense of wonder that I like to think I still possess.

It’s true: As you grow older, the fondness for the things of your youth increases. We all have our own private Rosebuds, locked away somewhere for whatever reason. This is one of mine, a small stack of aging newsprint with fond memories embedded therein.

Oh, and they look great on my spiffy new spinner-rack, too. After all, presentation is everything.

Quest_05

Comics © and TM Marvel Comics • Photos and article © Gary G. Sassaman


 

 

Me and My Marvel No-Prize …

Digging through some boxes and photo albums the other night, I came across the above item, my Marvel “No-Prize.” I treasure this empty envelope, and I’m glad I still have it, in relatively pristine condition, save for a thumbtack hole in it and a little dirt around the edges.

Stan Lee started sending out this lighthearted prize around 1967 in response to readers pointing out continuity errors in the comics. Other companies sometimes sent out something as a reward for finding such errors, but Stan decided instead to give out the “No-Prize,” because, as he put it in Fantastic Four #26, “There will be no prizes, and therefore, no losers.” At that point, Stan just published the letter that pointed out the error in whichever book’s letter column. Early No-Prizes were given for other reasons than continuity errors, such as questions Stan asked.

The No-Prize became a physical thing around 1967, when Marvel started mailing out the empty envelope shown above. But people didn’t get the joke. My own mailman, who was friends with my parents, delivered my prize, and told my mom that it was an empty envelope, there must be some kind of mistake. I knew exactly what it was, and I was thrilled with it. I was one of the chosen few!

Cap112

Captain America #112 and the panels in question. TM & © 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc.


My No-Prize originated with a 2-panel sequence in Captain America #112, the April 1969 issue. Written by Stan and drawn by Jack Kirby (with inks by George Tuska), this particular issue has its own interesting history. Plopped smack-dab in the middle of Jim Steranko’s amazing 3-issue run of Cap, this “Album Issue” was reportedly cranked out by Kirby over a very short period of time (like a weekend) when Steranko missed his deadline. It focused on a history of Cap, since Steranko apparently killed him off at the end of issue #111. But there on page 8 was the fatal error I caught (and I’m sure other people did, too): in recounting the death of Bucky Barnes, Cap and his sidekick drive a motorcycle up a ramp to stop a rocket. In the first panel, they’re in costume; in the very next panel, they’re in blue onesies. Error, error, error! I rushed off a letter to Stan, pointing out this major error and the severe repercussions it had on my young life. (Okay … I sent him a letter about it. I was okay with it otherwise.)

My No-Prize arrived on a cold day in February and was there when I got home from school. My mom didn’t get it either (“It’s an EMPTY envelope!”), but I was 13 and it was one of the highlights of my young life. I had been recognized by Stan “The Man” Lee and Marvel! I was sure he and Kirby  had a long and meaningful discussion on how this kid from small town Pennsylvania had caught them in such a blatant error. Who was this kid? Should we hire him? Perhaps he should proofread all our books?, were all questions I was sure were bandied about.

Alas, no job offer ever came, nor did one years later, when I sent a “script” to then-editor Roy Thomas at Marvel that amounted to the first 2 pages of a Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. tale that had Dum Dum Dugan revealed to be a Hydra agent out to kill Fury. I assured Roy I’d send more, soon as I figured it out. I got a polite form letter in return, but no job offer. Sheer genius is sometimes hard to recognize, I guess.

But I now contend that they ripped off my Dum Dum Dugan Hydra agent “plot” and hijacked it for the new Captain America series! I’d call my attorney if I had one.


 

Darwyn Cooke • 1962–2016

I don’t write a lot about comics on here, partly because it’s a business thing for me, however tangential, but also because … well, I just don’t write a lot anymore because I write a lot for work. But Darwyn Cooke died today and I felt the need to write something about him and what his work meant to me.

I met Darwyn maybe once, but I talked to him on the phone a couple of times for my job, for interviews on two projects he was working on that fit into our shows. One was the DC Universe Animated Movie for WB Animation, DC: The New Frontier; the other was when he did a new version of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.  I loved his work. Cooke had a style that was part WB Animation (and by that I mean Bruce Timm) and part Jack Kirby, with a smidgen of Alex Toth thrown in for (very) good measure. Like Toth, Cooke seemed to always be looking for that sweet spot in his art, where there was just enough drawn to show you the emotion, thrust, or action needed to tell the story. His clean, open style of cartooning loosened up a bit as he got older, but I always felt his work was incredibly precise, too, even when it was at its most sketchy. I know that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but what I mean is his work never had a wasted line. Everything you needed was right there on the page, without a lot of hoopla or fanfare, just good, solid, precision storytelling.

When he did DC: The New Frontier, he made a conscious effort to control his panel layout. Look at it: Most of it is 3-panel pages, with the occasional bravura full-page, or 2-page spread, or an extra panel or two on that 3-row grid. It simplified his storytelling process by making this decision in advance. On his incredible Parker series for IDW, he worked in two colors for each volume, eventually doing his original art as 2-page spreads.

I own two Cooke originals, a page from New Frontier (it’s page 297 in DC’s current edition of the book, featuring Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and one of the Challengers of the Unknown), and the other the Parker sketch adorning this post. I wish I had more of his work, because sadly now it won’t continue. I hope there are some unreleased pieces in his Parker series that were to accompany the novels IDW was reprinting, but only one of those (The Hunter) ever came out.

Cooke was a guest at WonderCon Anaheim in spring of 2015. Now just a little more than a year later he’s gone. It’s hard to believe. Ironically, I bought the trade paperback collection of his final (I’m guessing) work, The Twilight Children just this past Wednesday. It’s a Vertigo series he illustrated, written by Gilbert Hernandez. It wasn’t Cooke’s greatest, but it did showcase his incredibly charming way of drawing women, and his wonderful cartooning style, augmented by great coloring by Dave Stewart.

I’m going to miss Darwyn Cooke. It was a dream of mine to someday have him do a cover for one of the publications I edit and design. That will never come to pass now. But I can go back and re-read all his wonderful books. In fact, I think I’ll go look at his Parker graphic novels right now.

RIP, Darwyn Cooke.


 

Flashback Foto #004 …

That time I posed in front of that amazing Sergio Aragonés mural at the San Diego Central Library Gallery.

The Art of Comic-Con exhibit, which I had the honor of co-curating with the library’s Kara West, closes on Sunday, September 6th. If you’re in the San Diego area, please go see it before it goes away … for good. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my 15+-year career at Comic-Con.

The library is located at 330 Park Blvd. in downtown San Diego, and open Tuesday, Wednesday & Friday from 12:00–5:00; Thursday from 2:00–7:00; Saturday and Sunday from 12:00–4:00.

Photo by Kevin Green, not me. I’d have to run really fast or have a very slow timer to take this shot.


The Secret History of Innocent Bystander …

The name of this blog is not something I pulled out of a hat. 20 (!) years ago, I started publishing my own comic book … it was called Innocent Bystander. When I started a blog in 2004 (you can visit the first version of it by clicking here), I carried the name over. By this point in time, I figure it’s mine, all mine (although there is a wine company who would argue with me, I guess), so I finally got the URL to go with it (although truth be told, I had it many moons ago and let is lapse) when I restarted my blog just recently.

The name of the comic came from the fact that I felt like an innocent bystander in my own life. Things seemed to happen around me, not to me. That, of course, was a fallacy; everyone, including me, is an active participant in their own life, whether they want to be or not. But for me, at least at that particular moment in time, it was the perfect name for a comic that was basically about me and my experiences.

The other day I dug out copies of all six issues for a friend who had yet to see the book. And for the first time in years, I actually sat down and read them all over again. The first shock was that #1 came out in 1995, 20 years ago. While I probably started working on it in 1993 or so, it took a year or two to get my act together to publish it. When I reread it the other night, I realized how embarrassing it was, even though it had its good points. Issue #2 was a bit better, partly because of the lessons I learned off of issue #1: Better paper and no hand-lettering. At that point in time, computer fonts that looked like comic book lettering were just coming into existence, and I immediately switched to that, even though two prominent indie creators of the time chastised me in letters about it (and then one of them promptly chastised me in an additional letter for printing her letter in the first place).

Issue #3 featured the Marx Brothers, and that was the turnaround issue for me, the point where I found something good to talk about and my work improved because of it. Part comic book documentary, part personal experience, the Marxes meant so much to me in my formative years that I just had to write about them. #4 continued the “one book, one theme” format with an issue devoted to my cats, Stan and Ollie (who are sadly long gone). Issue #5 centered on my first long-form story, titled “Then I Saw Her Face,” which featured the triumph and tragedy of first love and the eighth grade dance (and maybe a little too much honesty). And #6 went back to the scatter-shot format of the first two issues with various short stories, but contained some of my best drawing work (I think). You can see a real progression from issue 1 to issue 6 when it came to the art and design of the book.

More was planned, but I up and quit my well-paying (but stressful) TV job of 18 years and moved across the country, not knowing a soul or having a job. (Kids, here’s some advice: Never quit a job until you have a new job … and oh, don’t do drugs). I had plans for an all TV issue, based on my years in television news (something I touched on in issues 1 & 2), and a special standalone issue called “Fuzzheads,” featuring “those lovable IB cats, Stan and Ollie.” I also started a book about the cats that I was sure every publisher in America would want to publish. They didn’t. (I guess I was a cat comics pioneer … all of this happened pre-Internet. Back then the only cat cartoonist was B. Kliban, and he died in 1990, evidently leaving behind a wealth of material, since there’s a calendar every year since then).

SunsetCliffsWhat happened next was I met Rich Koslowski, the creator of The 3 Geeks, and he and I teamed up for a book called Geeksville, which featured both of our stories in one book. We published 3 issues on our own (those 3 issues contained some of my best work, I think), and then at Comic-Con in 1999, Image Comics made us an offer to publish the book. We published 7 issues with them, but the minute we went to Image, the bloom was off the rose for me. Two things happened around the time we published our first issue (#0, since zero issues were all the rage back then): I got a job at Comic-Con as the director of programming, and all the joy of creating comics drained out of me once we went with Image. Image Comics then was not what it is now (now it’s the most creative and creator-friendly company in American comics … I would be honored to be doing a book with them now). Slowly my output and interest dwindled, like air escaping a slowly-leaking balloon. For 2 issues I relied on my friend Caryn to write stories about her somewhat bizarre childhood that I just drew and lettered. By the last issue, I think my contribution was a color back cover piece that I had created as a promotional postcard much earlier (seen at left).

When I look back at all this now, from a comfortable perch of 20 years later, I realize a number of things. I was going through an early midlife crisis (I had just turned 40), and I desperately needed a creative outlet. I realize now I was never really an artist; I was a storyteller. My writing was always stronger than my drawing, and I would get incredibly frustrated and impatient with not being able to translate what was in my head to what I wanted on the page. (One review at the time, called my artwork “timid.” I wholeheartedly agree).

In the long run, Innocent Bystander, the comic book, was a failure, at least from the standpoint of sales. I lost my shirt. I can safely say now, I racked up over $15,000 in debt trying to make this work. In 1998, when I left my job as a television graphic designer in Pittsburgh, PA, I took half a year to try and make this comic book career thing work. I published 3 books in 6 months (IB 5 and 6, and a trade paperback collection of the first 4 issues, which you can still find in various comic book stores throughout this great land of ours), and did 4 conventions (Pittsburgh Comicon, WizardWorld Chicago, San Diego Comic-Con—little did I know what was in the future for me with that particular con—and SPX). But … and this is a big but … it did garner me some fans from around the world, some of whom were very vocal about their love of the book and my work. I received a fair amount of mail and it was all very nice and kind and thoughtful. And I got mostly positive reviews. If the Sally Field Oscar line (“You like me, you really like me!”) wasn’t such a hoary old cliché, I’d be tempted to use it here.

Eventually, I realized it was time to move on and start over and stop spending money on something that just wasn’t going to happen for me. So I loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars. (Well, actually it was a Honda CRX and I came to San Diego, where I’ve been ever since. I’m still amazed by palm trees, by the way.)

A few years later, I entered the comics industry by a side door, and I’ve been in it ever since. Every once in a while I’ll meet someone who remembers Innocent Bystander, the comic book. The most recent was a fellow Pittsburgher, Ed Piskor, who won an Eisner Award this year for Best Reality-Based Work for his Hip-Hop Family Tree. It’s nice to be remembered, especially by someone so talented and committed to his comics work. (Yes, I name drop.)

It’s also nice to look back at this portion of my life with a certain amount of fondness. I’ll never feel the money was wasted. I’ll probably never (I stress that word “probably”) ever do a comic book again, or an online strip, or even draw something. But those few years that I did so were among the most satisfying moments in my life. I can honestly tell you there’s nothing like getting a shipment of books delivered to your door and opening up that first box. The smell of ink on freshly-printed paper—mixed slightly with blood, sweat, tears, and money you’ll never see again—is something one never forgets.


Top image: The world of Innocent Bystander circa mid to late 1990s. Top row (left to right): The “Ashcan” issue I prepared to try and find a publisher (which resulted in the decision to self-publish); Issues 1 through 4. Bottom row (left to right): Issues 5 and 6, the first trade paperback (there never was a second), the “World Tour” catalog I prepared for the 4 conventions I exhibited at in 1998, and the cover to Geeksville #3, the Christmas issue, and the only Innocent Bystander cover of that series. All art © Gary G. Sassaman.

Lower image: Stan and Ollie at Sunset Cliffs. © Gary G. Sassaman. Stan and Ollie, RIP.


Jack Kirby Would Have Been 98 Today …

It’s hard to imagine comics without Jack “King” Kirby. The comics industry as we know it today would not exist without him. He was a pioneering artist in the 1940s, co-creating Captain America with Joe Simon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe would not exist without him. Kirby had a hand in the creation of almost all the Avengers movie characters (with the possible exception of Hawkeye and Black Widow), so his impact today is more important than ever, stretching way beyond just comic books. His characters are household words, if (sadly) he himself isn’t.

Kirby was the first artist who really meant something to me. At the ripe old age of six, I discovered the Fantastic Four. Kirby and Stan Lee’s signatures on that first page made me come to the startling revelation that someone actually wrote and drew these comic books I was so fond of. As a kid, I would coerce my friends into playing “Marvel Comics” with me. I would be Stan and whomever was unlucky enough to be stuck in our cramped, comic book-filled playroom would be Jack. We would “smoke” pretzel rods, because all top comic creators smoked big, fat, stinky cigars. I would say “What’s in our next issue, Jack?” and my friends would look at me with a blank face, convinced that I was weird beyond belief. But I was obsessed, and in the decade of the ‘60s, when you went to the newsstand and were confronted with 3 or 4 or 5 Kirby-drawn Marvel comics in any given month, the powerful opiate of 4-color comics was enticingly persuasive. Especially when you’re ten years old.

For me, Kirby was never as good alone as he was with Stan Lee … as a team, they were the Lennon & McCartney of comics. Like the Beatles, they didn’t always get along, but the work they did together was absolutely amazing. It’s doubly sad to see a train wreck such as the new Fantastic Four movie. Lee & Kirby created a blueprint for an amazing ongoing story, more than enough for multiple movies. For anyone to abandon that already-created storyboard is a crime.

We still miss you, King. Happy 98th birthday.


Above image: Hulk (from Avengers #3, I believe), 1964 © Marvel Characters, Inc. • Kirby portrait by and © Michael Cho