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Category Archives for: Comics

A Short Day at CALA

11 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Held in the art space, Think Tank Gallery, in the Fashion District of Los Angeles, CALA is a comic book event that brings together some of the best alternative comics creators. I went in and explored the inspiring work of dozens of creators. It immediately brought imagery that I sought to use in my own work.

Having met Robert Goodin at the Long Beach Comic Con in September, once again, I passed by to talk about The Kurdles. When I discovered Farel Dalrymple was there, I approached his table to give him my thoughts on The Wrenchies, which I happened to have finished just a couple of days before. I wanted to talk to Ryan-Cecil Smith about his work, about living in Japan, and about Tim at the Deconstructing Comics podcast, but he had stepped out. Making it a point to go back and see him later, I stepped into the presentation hall to see the discussion with Jaime Hernandez.

For me, the feature event of the whole program was the talk that Jaime Hernandez was going to give. After the presenter asked him questions about his work, the floor opened to questions from the audience, and I was slowly confounded by how no one acknowledged his status in the field. As Jaime was asked question after question about his working methods, I wondered what the new generation knew about the older comics. Here we had someone who was to alternative comics what Shakespeare was to English Literature. Along with Wendy Pini and Dave Sim and Jaime’s brother, Gilbert, Jaime was one of a half a dozen creators that made the alternative scene come to life when there was nothing else on the map but corporate product. It was not the land of plenty we have around us today. If not for them, we may not have been sitting in that art space partaking of this fine venue of artistic creation.

In the end, a question occurred to me and I asked about the layout he had been using in recent years with the eight-panel grid (which made me no better than anybody else, since what I really wanted to do was give him a standing ovation). In the layout he had been using in The New Stories, I was reading into it things like Alex Toth’s last issue of Hot Wheels and some of the theories that Frank Santoro has brought up about losing the center in certain comic book page formations. But Jaime simply answered that he needed more panels per page when there was more dialogue, which is what he needed during the Hopey and Maggie scenes. Whenever the action returned, he went back to six panels. In hindsight, Jaime felt that it was not fair since Maggie and Hopey were not populating much of the action scenes lately, so they were only ever showed from midsection up.

Since no one commended him, I took the time after the convention panel to approach and tell him how much of an inspiration he was, and I recounted my first Love and Rockets experience (Love and Rockets #3) and how much of a game-changer that was – how much of a revelation in the world of comics. I shook his hand, and when I went back onto the convention floor to speak to Ryan-Cecil Smith, I changed my mind and found that this was the perfect note to end on. I went out onto the pavement and found that I was genuinely joyful, almost as if I didn’t know why.

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Showa

02 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Two days ago, I wrote this: “Today, Shigeru Mizuki died,” and I didn’t know what else to say to follow it up. Words were not coming to me. What stunned me was that I am now in the process of reading the Showa series, and I was elated by the fact that he had been able to survive an incredible number of life-threatening moments and that he was 93 and still a practicing cartoonist. The very fact that Mizuki as an infantryman survived World War II is nothing but a miracle.

Showa is a series of books that tells the history of the Showa Era of Japan (1926-1989) through all of its tides and developments done in comic book form. It employs Mizuki’s signature style of having simple, cartoon figures populating realistic backdrops. The backgrounds are so realistic that they do nothing to assimilate the simple line drawings of characters. This is important because it may say something about Mizuki’s approach and why he has chosen to work this way in many of his books. The gritty realism is obviously pulled from photo references, and they exhibit a labor-intensive rendering approach that must have been an uphill battle, panel by panel. However, the pages flow quickly for the reader as Mizuki moderates the speed not by the elaboration of the drawings but by how much narrative he places per page; often, there are few words, and the detail of the photo renderings are not enough to slow you down to admire all the work. In fact, these pictures of WWII planes blowing up over rough waters and important leaders signing documents act in the opposite manner: they show familiar pictorial archetypes that can be glanced quickly. These images are covered in crosshatched textures that provide a surface “grime,” that also serve to push the reader back. It is a use of detail made to be ignored rather than pull you in.

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The general narrative begins with a plain, third-person treatment that is translated here in present tense. I don’t know if this were the verb tense the Japanese was originally written in, but in English, it feels quick, simple and current. It is one of the reasons some fiction writers use it, so that the events feel as if transpiring right now. This general narrative soon reveals itself as the words of Mizuki’s Rat Man, who eventually comes in to lace the events with a deadpan tone of incredulity. He serves the reader in ways that would show a sardonic, questioning attitude to the decisions made by the Japan’s leaders. At times, the Rat Man interacts with the powerful people, making comments or asking questions, and these historical figures either ignore him or answer his comments with their own cynical replies. The other narrative voice is that of Mizuki himself. In Showa, we have not just a rendition of a chunk of history but a personal account of Mizuki’s life as they were shaped by the times. Mizuki enjoys a special place in that he was a witness to the entire period, and the story of his life and family are interweaved with the larger events.

In the art, the cartoon characters serve as counterpoints to the realistically-drawn movers and shakers that seem so distant by comparison. However, when a famous leader is shown saying something, his physiognomy is reshaped into simpler lines showing bonehead expressions. These moments are interspersed with photo imagery culled from history. Replete with cold, photographic impressions, the series’ use of this strategy is not as effective throughout the work. At its worst, you get nothing more than an image that goes with the text, as when the narrative mentions a return trip for Mizuki that he did by train and it is accompanied by the mundane, redrawn photo of a train doing its thing.

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However, as I get to the last book, these techniques begin to feel mechanical. If you read all four books, you will have read 2,000 pages, and it is difficult to sustain interest for that long. In this last book, the war is finally over, and we get snippets of Japan’s rise from the ashes as it climbs into the status of a global economic powerhouse. The episodic nature of events in this book is fragmentary with the only real cohesion being Shigeru Mizuki’s own personal life trials. It feels like now that the war is over, it is more difficult to coalesce a suitable narrative for all the various things that happen over the next thirty to forty years. A much larger timeframe is enveloped in this book than the other three put together. It makes me wonder if tackling on the entire Showa period may have been more than anyone could have worked with and still maintain unity in the work. When the narrative breaks down into one unrelated event after another, I feel that Mizuki is striving to catch up with the rest of the era and end it already.

As I was reading this last book, I was also wondering if he had only shown those aspects of the later Showa period that he happened to have focused on when they were transpiring in his life. There were several bizarre murders that he might have brought up to show the changing psychology of a modernized Japan. The deaths of a couple of famous actors are mentioned. World events are brought in to show how they influence Japan. All of these episodes felt sporadic, and the art did not help. By now, all this grainy photorealism begins to raise ideas in my head that he and his assistants were likely working from photocopies of photos, which would have made the decision of where to place the blacks, for example, already delineated by a machine. Indeed, some of these historic moments were nothing more than a grainy snapshot of the moment without even bothering to copy them in a drawing. A great amount of these images do possess the mark of degenerated photocopies. They’re quite ugly, and I felt in the first couple of books that this was a strength since it was counterpoised with the cartoon drawings. As I’m nearing the 2,000-page mile marker, I’m not even looking at these pictures anymore. It’s just too much of the same process of a very long work.

In sharp contrast, Onward to Our Noble Deaths is a work of his that uses the very same techniques but succeeds on every level. It is a unified story that is a fraction of the size of Showa. There may be something in the respective sizes of these two works and their respective successes; any theme, any technique can overstay its welcome.

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One saving grace in this last volume of Showa is the creative way he incorporates fantasy or dream elements into the general line of events. There are moments in his life where he dreams of situations that at first seem real but soon reveal themselves to be dreams or otherworldly moments. Since Mizuki is tied to the world of yokai (ghosts from Japan), this fits with the work he is doing on his yokai manga and the interests he has had in ghosts since childhood. In one inspired moment, he has a writer acquaintance of his who has shown up in the narrative suddenly take over the narration from the Rat Man and claims that he can do a better job. It suddenly brings you out of a stupor and makes you realize that this is a living, breathing account instead of a mere recording of history. In the end, Mizuki’s playful treatment of the material and his warm outlook on the era make these four volumes of his work a notable reading experience and an artistic account of a remarkable life.

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The Kurdles

03 October 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Sally Bear and Pentapus are now household names in our home. For my daughter’s birthday, I decorated her banner with both these characters in tandem with Spiderman and some Korean childhood characters. What has made this book special for us is that I am now reading to her once again after many months wherein she only wanted her mother to read to her. It grips her, but it also holds my attention, especially in the way that it feels like something I had encountered before in my own youth. Every time we finish the story, I recognize it has made inroads for further adventures and I wonder what those will be like and when they will be made available. I keep puzzling over it, imagining events that may not happen but that are feasible in this world Robert Goodin has created. And our copy is extra special in that he signed it for her with a custom drawing he did at the Long Beach Comic Con.

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All images in this post copyright Robert Goodin.

 

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Bravo for Adventure by Alex Toth

13 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Everyone has a first Toth story. In interviews, creators who are Alex Toth aficionados are always asked when was the time they discovered Toth’s work.

Back in the 80s, when I needed alternatives to the comic books on the spinner racks, when I was looking back at classic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant to compensate for a lack I found in the industry, I found an ad in a reprint of Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer that was pushing something called Bravo for Adventure. I had the feeling it was recent work, even if it had all the thematic ammunition of an older era in that one drawing: man with pencil mustache and scarf standing next to an early airplane as a young lady walks by. And in a box, I found the name, Alex Toth. The enigmatic thing about it was that the drawing was devoid of detail, which would have been anathema to me in those days because I loved detail, and yet the image and the name stayed with me for years to come.

This very same image is what you get on the cover of IDW’s new reprint of Bravo for Adventure (except they stripped away the charm of the old black and white by coloring it). It is a handsome edition of what many consider Alex Toth’s finest work, his masterpiece.

If Alex Toth would have been able to secure his lifelong dream to be a syndicated adventure comic strip creator, it would have been something like the content of this book with two important differences: the storytelling format would have been that of strips instead of the comic book pages we get here and it would have been a much larger work, comprising multiple, thick volumes the likes of IDW’s Terry and the Pirates or Dick Tracy instead of this one hundred-page sampler.

Bravo for Adventure follows the exploits of adventure pilot, Jesse Bravo, flying in the exciting vistas of the 1930s (which happens to be the golden decade of the adventure strip). The main story is 48 pages long, providing the reader with a glimpse of what could have been if it had continued. The other two stories were created later. One serves as an introduction to Jesse Bravo and his background and is presented here before the main story. The other is something of a dream sequence in which Toth tips his hat to all of his influences of the adventure strip, people like Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Roy Crane. There are also some extra features at the back of the book.

I grew up learning that the word “pastiche” had a negative connotation, and in the introduction of the book, Dean Mullaney calls this work a pastiche, even if he means it in a good way. It could be a good way, I suppose, if a pastiche is nothing less than an homage to the work of previous creators that have been an inspiration to your own work. Though I catalogue the words “pastiche” and “homage” in two different places of my brain, I entered this book with that mindset.

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And when I put the book down after having finished it, I found that it had nothing of a pastiche to it. Of course it was an homage to the old adventure strips but it was more than that. Here we have the blueprint for how to take old material and make it sing once again. Alex Toth took the conventions of those types of stories and played them up here to a higher level of humanism. Unlike the grand adventures of heroes foiling bandit armies or chasing down spy rings, the chief conflicts in Bravo had to deal with gambling debts and smearing someone else’s name. It also dealt a bit with loss as the story unfolds, and it played these more sophisticated themes with greater sensitivity than the classic strips themselves. The dialogue is sharp and to the point, with a level of realism that is appropriate for the specific timescape. Every character had a different set of qualities that set them apart from the others. Even the thugs were sympathetic, almost likable, with real personalities. And personalities were rendered by gestures and facial expressions as much as by a character’s speech patterns and intentions, offering rounded characters in every regard a comic book could offer.

I found there is another important difference between Bravo and the older works it is referencing: as mentioned  above, Toth is laying out panels on a comic book page rather than a comic strip, and this naturally grants far more freedom. The flow is not truncated by four-panel dailies, and it visually breathes better on the book page than any collection of Dick Tracy strips.

Alex Toth is known as the master without a masterpiece (at least, a masterpiece of any considerable length). Could this 48-page story be used as his proxy for a masterpiece, even if it were unfinished? Just from the fact that this was a personal work for him, that it represented the adventure genre that he loved so much, and that he created every aspect of it with no editorial obstacles, this story has got my vote.

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Creepy Presents: Alex Toth

08 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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As a seasoned artist, I look at Alex Toth’s work and I am inevitably delighted. I have sat in awe of a story of no consequence of nothing more than a handful of pages because it was drawn by Toth, and it would be like no other – the compositions, the flow from panel to panel, the well-formed figures, the abstracted simplicity, and the way he put all this together. It was my idea, along with that of countless others, that Toth could not disappoint.

Creepy Presents: Alex Toth was a book I had to have and it is a book I will keep, even if it has the distinction of being the least impressive of Toth’s work. From the start, the drawings feel flimsier than anything else he’s done. As I was trying to understand why I felt this way, I found clues in the gray tones. He seems to struggle with the tones; it feels like he’s filling things in. I wasn’t sure. I kept looking into it. How was this possible?

The fundamental problem, as I gathered it, was that Toth was strongest in pure black and white, without tones, unless the tones were clean or mechanically placed. That simplicity he thrived on was sheer magic when he was in complete control of the art, including the lettering. All the work in this book is also without color, but the gray tones muddy that crisp clarity he brought into his simple, albeit sophisticated, forms. Either ink wash or pencil or gray marker (I can’t tell which), the techniques used here form a veneer of possibilities, yet they never go far enough. There are never more than one or two shades of gray, almost no textural differentiation, and the worst: the grays did nothing to heighten the forms or do anything else for that matter. It was grainy in parts, washed out in others, dark and opaque in still others. It felt as if he were rushed. The signature Toth drawing was there, but the forms were often faded by haphazard scumbles – obscured – undermining the clarity he looked for.

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What was the problem here? Was it the printing limitations of the original Warren magazines? No, not at all. Toth contemporaries working with the same array of tones produced many levels above this, using a rich range of grays, employing patterns to great effect, playing with lighting to direct the eye; just look at what Steve Ditko was doing at the same time for the same publications.

The stories in which the gray tones work best still come across as sketchy; I am thinking of “Survival,” where you can find backgrounds obviously influenced by Milton Caniff, one of Toth’s inspirations. The grays enhance here and there but feel almost like surplus work.  In “Proof Positive,” you get an inkling of more effective grays, but they’re still too blurry (perhaps done purposefully to satisfy the theme of photography in this story). At other times, like in the “Hacker” stories, the more concrete shades look divorced from the line work; it reminded me of talented student work. It makes me wonder if Alex Toth was in over his head with these techniques. Perhaps here was an area of drawing that the master himself had not yet mastered. Or maybe he rendered them too quickly; I found signs that betray that he tossed some of these tones together. (If you look at the page illustrated above, you’ll find a halo around every form in Panel Four, the kind of shortcut for which I reprimand my lazier students.) Unsurprisingly, the story with the strongest mark of Toth on it is one of the few without tones, titled “The Reaper.”

So, yes, the art did disappoint. But then again, we’re talking about expectations set by Toth himself. The book does not deliver because even when you scrutinize the panels and find that the foundational drawing is there, the results themselves – as a whole – fall apart.

And the stories certainly don’t help. Most of them are scripted by Archie Goodwin, whose tales may start with a bit of snap or a strong mood, but continue with verbosity that does not read well today, and always end stale with contrived shock endings. The one exception is “The Reaper,” which had a nice rhythm to it that was in precise harmony with Toth’s panels. The stories by other writers run the same course, and word balloons pile on top of each other holding superfluous text, blotting out the art, tearing the reader’s attention from the what’s going on in the panels.

What was exciting for me about this book was the presence of four of Toth’s very own stories. One of Toth’s aspirations was that of doing his own scripting, of which he had few opportunities in his career. This book has four stories that fall completely under his creative control, from writing and lettering to penciling and inking. The stories are more of the same Twilight Zone fluff that for some reason necessitated a surprise in the end, but they are noteworthy because they are better than most of the others in the collection, and here the artist is the complete author of his work.

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The book also includes several stories in which Toth is inking over somebody else’s pencils, and I was least interested in these pages. With the exception of a panel here and there, there was little Toth to be found in them.

Ultimately, am I keeping the book? I have already said I would. Even with all the blemishes, there is still enough good quality inside, especially in the great storytelling techniques. I am thinking of stories like “Kui” (scripted by Toth), which showcases closeups of vegetation and temple walls – essentially abstract panels – heightening the sense of claustrophobia by limiting perspective (regardless if it were spotted with more of that ambiguous shading). I am also thinking of “Survival,” which is simply beautiful, even with that ridiculous surprise ending. Though not Toth’s greatest work, this collection still offers his brand of craft. Toth’s flawed work can still inspire awe.

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Steve Rude: Artist in Motion

01 May 2015 by Rey Armenteros

The independent comics boom of the 1980s created new directions in comics storytelling. The art styles were basically the same, but the approaches to story seemed to gather what was already established in the mainstream and give it a couple of twists. On the surface, Nexus was a superhero comic set in outer space, but it was actually a complicated tale about the forces behind blind justice, and how the titular character wrestled with the need to execute the guilty with his inexorable powers. The stories by Mike Baron were compelling and more involved than the standard fair in most other comics. And the art of Steve “The Dude” Rude marked rare instances of elegance in the comics of those days.

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Flesk Publications put out Steve Rude: Artist in Motion a few years ago. It covers instances of the Dude’s entire career, giving the reader a survey of all of his accomplishments. In this single volume, we get some knowledge on his influences from Alex Toth and Russ Manning, among many others. We get a detailed interview that sheds light on his approach and some of the high and low points of his career. We get a wide range of art, from comic books to paintings, from nude studies to animation stills.

The elements that gave me pause for reflection had to do with his untiring drive to learn more and more techniques. Here was a comics artist who was already extraordinarily accomplished in the 1980s with comic pages that were respected by industry professionals along with covers that had a panache for realism while still retaining the charm of fantasy. Indeed, in one chapter, he is favorably compared with Alex Ross, which is an apt connection. I would go so far as to say that the Dude paved the way for the likes of Alex Ross by doing painted covers grounded in all aspects of verisimilitude, using convincing proportions and established light sources.

Even though he was ever the innovator, Steve Rude was to this day still learning from his old painting teacher and striving to perfect his craft. It almost makes me pause once again – but in order to reflect in the other direction. As an artist, I understand all too well the obsession behind getting better and better, but I found that the exercises that he pursued in this venture were not as exciting as his comic book work, and it made me wonder why the publisher devoted whole chapters to it. Honestly, who cares about another nude study? We’ve seen millions of these, and when publishers include them in art books, it is almost as if to say, “yes, but he can also do this more serious stuff.” I don’t care for the Coke ads and the pastel portraits; there was nothing special about them – even the technique was inferior to many of his Nexus covers from the 1980s. Give me more of Nexus in costume, as real as the Dude could make him shooting beams of deadly light from his hands, and Behold!…There’s the real art in motion!

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Questioning the Crowquill

08 November 2014 by Rey Armenteros

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There is a connection between the last entry and the running thought so far. When you look at the Dragon Lord’s artwork, it shows the same kind of work I was doing then, even if mine lacked the professional polish. Here are a few of the pages I’m talking about. The second and third pages are incredible because they exhibit thirty panels that attempt a crosshatching treatment that actually works in most of the panels. Looking at it now, however, it doesn’t inspire like it once did. If you look long enough, individual panels do curl under sufficient scrutiny – a few of them are hard to read, and throughout the comic book, you won’t find a page without blemishes, such as clumsy forms or strange compositions.

Nevertheless, when I first opened that copy of The Reign of the Dragon Lord as a teenager, I couldn’t help feeling excitement and deflation simultaneously. Here was a published work that had closely mirrored the visual goals I had for my own work. As my young mind must have concluded when I put the comic down, it was a great idea that had already been done, and so I had to find something different. And that might even mean changing my ideals, because when you changed your style, as I must have been contemplating shortly after reading this comic book, you have to change some of the ideology that goes along with it.

In those days, I would deny old styles so fervently, that I hated the previous one as soon as I found a new one. After crosshatching for years, I was toying with alternatives. It may have been that I was already contemplating working in a brush before ever picking up Dragon Lord. But even so, the discovery of this comic would have cemented this search for new possibilities. For me, picking up a brush meant flirting with new strangers (no matter how clumsy the interaction), and that meant ultimately turning my back on the crowquill.

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Dragon Lord_0002(Copyright for images belong to their respective owners.)

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A Missing Comic Book

14 October 2014 by Rey Armenteros

Without ever going through the conscious decision of collecting them, I acquired about half of my comics one way or another. I can’t say I liked many of these comics that fell on my lap. If I ever got rid some of this variety of comic book, regret rarely followed. The Reign of the Dragon Lord #1 was a comic that I bought with a clutch of other throw-aways. I had never heard of it before I found it in a bargain bin at a tiny comic convention (or maybe it was a book fair). But Dragon Lord stood out from the others as soon as I went past the cover and took a look inside. It was B&W and done in an array of crosshatching uncommon in comics, immediately raising an affinity within me as it connected with my own comic book ideas. The story was of a different turn while paralleling general fantasy themes I was addressing in my own work. Whenever I recalled that one well-done unknown, it was with some sense of respect. Because of this, I never would have gotten rid of it, and it disturbed me to find out it was missing when I was going through my collection a couple of years back.

Who knows what happened to it? I may have lent it to a friend, or I could have mistakenly included it with the thousand or so comics I sold to partially finance my educational plans (with money I never received). All I know is that I wouldn’t have gotten rid of it. Soon after the discovery, I found it online and bought it along with the second issue. I got comfortable a couple days after Christmas and read them together, taking joy in how it all came together and finding the effort commendable, albeit not without flaws. It was the kind of thing that could be labeled a labor of love, far more interesting to me than a perfectly-crafted comic that had no soul beyond the drive of a corporate outlook. I looked online for more, but I found that Eternity Comics, the publisher, had cancelled the title before the third issue came out. It was a story that had no ending though there was apparently one that was intended for it.

When I looked into it further, I came across a novel with the same title, and looking even further found the novelist was the same person as the one who had done the script all those years ago. This novel had come out within recent years, and it seemed to take the same premise as the comic book. If it was the same story, it at least brought the story to some form of resolution, even if it were missing the essential aspect that brought the experience home for me: the art.

The author had a website, and I sent him a message through it, telling him about my story with the long-lost comic and how much I thought it was special – like nothing I had seen before in comics. I asked him if he ever finished the story, impllying to mean as a comic book. If I remember this correctly, this was December 31st. When he responded, it was just three hours before New Year’s (on the West Coast). After expressing his appreciation of my comments, he told me that he had recently written a novel that finalized the story he had in mind all those years back. Then he added that my comment had come at just the right time; he had had a terrible year and at least he was able to finish it on a good note with the warm thoughts of an old fan. He told me to check out the novel, that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I wrote back telling him I would, even though I knew I didn’t mean it. Somehow, as I thought of it then (and as I still think of it now), it wouldn’t have been the same.719457

 

 

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(Copyright for images belong to their respective owners.)

 

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