Sunday, January 1, 2017

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #49: The Weirdworlds of Marvel Super Specials






By Professor Tom Flynn







Marvel Comics Super Special 11: Warriors of the Shadow Realm
September 1979

Cover Art by John Buscema and Peter Ledger

“Warriors of the Shadow Realm Part the First”
Story by Doug Moench
Pencils by John Buscema
Inks by Rudy Nebres
Painted by Peter Ledger
Letters by John Costanza
Calligraphy by Herb Cooper, Tom Orzechowski and Mark Rogan
    
“The Knowledge of Elves”
Poetry by Doug Moench

“A Map of Weirdworld”

“A John Buscema Scrapbook”

“Washed Ashore on Weirdworld”
Text by Doug Moench

“How This Book Came to Be”


Marvel Comics Super Special 12: Warriors of the Shadow Realm
November 1979

Cover Art by John Buscema and Peter Ledger

“Warriors of the Shadow Realm Part the Second: The Darklens Gems”
Story by Doug Moench
Pencils by John Buscema
Inks by Rudy Nebres
Painted by Peter Ledger
Letters by John Costanza
Calligraphy by Herb Cooper, Tom Orzechowski and Mark Rogan
    
“How This Book Came to Be”

“An Informal History of American Fantasy Illustration”
Text by Rick Marschall

“A John Buscema Scrapbook”




Marvel Comics Super Special 13: Warriors of the Shadow Realm
January 1980

Cover Art by John Buscema and Peter Ledger

“Warriors of the Shadow Realm Part the Third: The Soul Shrine”
Story by Doug Moench
Pencils by John Buscema
Inks by Rudy Nebres
Painted by Peter Ledger
Letters by John Costanza
Calligraphy by Herb Cooper, Tom Orzechowski and Mark Rogan
    
“Encounter at Halfway Earth-Weird”
Text by Doug Moench

“Over the Hills and Far Away: A History of Epic Fantasy in Literature”
Text by Ralph Macchio

“Polychromatic Effulgence”
Text by Rick Marschall




When it came time to prepare the lesson plan for Marvel Comics Super Special #11 (September 1979), the faculty was presented with a dilemma: this full-color magazine kicked off a three-part Weirdworld fantasy — an adventure that wouldn’t end until issue 13, published in January 1980, outside of the University’s mission statement. So, with Dean Pete’s approval, I put on my big boy pants and decided to tackle all three magazines in a single Sunday Special. You can’t say that I have never taken one for my alma mater. Though Ghost Rider should have made that obvious by now.

Now if you have been paying attention class — which is not, of course, a prerequisite for MU attendance — the name Weirdworld should be familiar. This very professor covered the debut of Doug Moench’s The Lord of the Rings pastiche in the one-shot magazine Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976): my esteemed colleague Joe Tura dealt with the follow-up in the pages of Marvel Premiere # 38 (October 1977).  Created by Doug Moench and illustrated by the marvelous Mike Ploog, this land of elves and dragons should have faded into non-history but it found a champion, Marv Wolfman, who convinced the powers that were to give it another shot in the pages of the Super Special series. The original creative team was assembled and off they went: that is until Ploog refused to sign the publishers’ work-for-hire contract and jumped ship after completing only 31 of the proposed 60 pages. He was paid though.  Now that’s Ploog’s side of the story — Super Special editor Rick Marschall remembered it  a bit differently. According to Marschall, it became apparent that Ploog was falling way behind his four-month deadline. So, to give the artist extra time, it was decided to run the story over two issues. But even that failed to work, and Ploog was given the heave ho. Pick your poison.



For whatever reason, the original plan was scrapped and Moench would go back and create a 106-page story that would command three whole magazines. A new artist, one quite familiar with the sword-and-sorcery milieu, was brought on board: Big John Buscema, who always preferred the genre to the superhero stuff. Rudy Nebres was tagged for inker. And since the Super Specials now featured Marvelcolor, a painter was needed as well. Enter Peter Ledger, Australia’s top illustrator/airbrusher at the time. Though unknown in America, he had an impressive resume of movie posters (Stone, Oz), album covers and other wondrous work to his credit — plus, since his dream was to work for The House of Ideas, he was in New York at the time, harassing the Bullpen for assignments. With the new team in place, the work began anew with little delays or conflicts.

Now the artwork is obviously the star of this show. In his Editorial in the first issue, Rick Marschall makes the dubious claim that it joins a short list of milestones in the history of publishing: the first use of colors in the Currier and Ives prints that appeared before the Civil War; Puck, the first weekly magazine to use the technique; The Yellow Kid cartoon that was the first to break the black-and-white wall in 1896 and so on. While this might smell of hyperbole, the illustrations are amazing, offering brilliant hues and amazing airbrushed effects never seen in comics before. With that in mind, Mr. Moench story is going to get the short end of the stick.

Our stars are two cute and innocent tween elves, Tyndall and Velanna, the only of their race in the magical realm of Weirdworld. While their memories are hazy, they do recall that their home was named Klarn, a sylvan region of cottages. Along with their crotchety friend Mud-Butt — not named for an intestinal irritation but for the habit of landing on his ass in mud puddles — the elves come in possession of five strange gemstones. Looking for the origins of the jewels, they take them to a sorcerer named Zarthon. The corpulent conjuror claims that the stones contain the five parts of the wicked soul of the ancient warlock Darklens, the very being that created Weirdworld. Eventually, Darklens turned on his creation, especially angered by the elves for some reason: he tore Klarn from the surface and sent it floating miles above where it casts shadows to this day. Zarthon warns that Darklens will soon return and only Tyndall and Velanna can prevent this by destroying his bones. The little people, along with Mud-Butt, journey to the sorcerer’s tomb only to discover that it is a ruse: Zarthon has hatched a plan to gain Darklens mighty and menacing powers. But with the help of the sudden appearance of a greybeard wizard and a friendly white wolf, evil is defeated and peace returns to Weirdworld.



Basically that’s it. We do also have huge swamp-serpents, giant, bat-like nightfangers and menacing, horse backed Dark Riders. It’s perfectly fine, but I’m not a big fan of fantasy literature. The first two issues have a rather leisurely pace: for the third, Moench seemed to realize that he was running out of space and crammed half of the story in the finale. But, back in the day, I didn’t plunk down my $1.50 for Doug: the awesome artwork earned my scant Pennysaver earnings. Big John was on his game in a major way, penciling tremendously detailed drawings. Nebres is the perfect match and Ledger’s incredible color work gives each page a luxurious texture, producing a fabulous three-dimensional feel. And there is an abundance of two-page spreads — and three-page foldouts — included, so the illustrations are often given huge palettes to strut their sensational stuff. The army of top notch letterers added a lot to the party as well. It’s really a remarkable achievement.

The magazines offer some pretty decent text pieces as well. Both Part the First and Part the Second — pretentious much Doug? — include “A John Buscema Scrapbook.” Each piece includes early character sketches that give a revealing look at Big John’s artistic process. Good stuff. The first two parts also feature “How This Book Came to Be” articles. The one in issue #11 mainly focuses on Marv Wolfman’s efforts to give Doug’s world of “little people” another shot. At two pages, it’s much longer than it needs to be but there are some nice photos of the players involved, one set in Stan Lee’s executive office. Much better, the “Came to Be” in issue #12 focuses on the work involved to get the magazines to press, complete with four different shots of the same page as it went through the steps to completion. Things began with Buscema’s penciled page which was then forwarded to Nebres: Rudy inked only the characters and other limited details. Then Peter Ledger painted the pages with his airgun or a regular brush. Finally, they were returned to Nebres for his finishing embellishments. Sounds like a lot of back and forth.

The last two magazines include three historical pieces. Rick Marschall’s “An Informal History of American Fantasy Illustration” is just that, five illustrated pages that namedrop such artists as Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, Jessie Willcox Smith, and others who now live on in assorted Dover paperbacks. At two pages, Ralph Macchio’s “Over the Hills and Far Away: A History of Epic Fantasy in Literature” also lives up to it title, briefly mentioning Gilgamesh, The Iliad and other ancient epics as well as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Tolkein, and Anne MacCaffrey. “Anne” is spelled Ann if you cared. Marschall is back with “Polychromatic Effulgence,” a 5-page examination of fantasy comic strips, from Wee Willie Winkie’s World (1871–1965) to Krazy Kat (1880–1944). All are adequate but much too short to be considered remotely comprehensive.

Unfortunately, things didn’t stop there. Moench wasn’t content with just writing the story, he wanted in on the text piece action as well, adding three across all magazines. “The Knowledge of Elves” is his poem about Weirdworld. If you think I’m going to read that, you know nothing about Tuco. “Washed Ashore on Weirdworld” is Doug’s 4-page story about how he came up with the concept. An excerpt:

“Nevertheless, at the end of those rapidly burnished two or three hours, I emerged from the rhapsody of fog, seemingly drunk, delirious and euphoric, yet still paradoxically straight as an arrow, cold sober and solidly in control. I blinked, again aware … and I found the completed story right there on the desk before me, next to the still-sizzling typewriter. First draft, indeed!”


Positively Gerberesque. Doug claims to have never read The Lord of the Rings by the way. Now when I realized that “Encounter at Halfway Earth-Weird” was a short story about Moench meeting Tyndall, Velanna and Mud-Butt in a forest near his home in Pennsylvania, I decided to call it a day. So there we have it class, three magazines for the price of one. This is probably the last time you’ll hear the words Marvel Super Special on the MU campus. We’ve had some fun but not sure a tear will be shed. 








1 comment:

  1. I recall at the time The Comics Journal devoted the better part of an entire issue to this thing, laying it on like it was going to herald a whole new age of comics.

    But come on....elves? Apart from Elfquest (and Chris Claremont's brief flirting with leprechauns) did they ever really achieve any high profile in US comics?

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