Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #8

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
Epic Fail?
by Professor Tom Flynn

Epic Illustrated 1
March 1980
Cover Art by Frank Frazetta

“The Answer”
Story by Stan Lee
Art by John Buscema and Rudy Nebres

“Home Spun”
Story and Art by Wendy Pini

Story and Art by Leo Duranona

“For the Next Sixty Seconds”
Story and Art by Bob Layton

“Metamorphosis Odyssey: Aknaton”
Story and Art by Jim Starlin

“Lullaby of Bedlam”
Story and Art by Ray Rue

Story and Art by Mirko IIić

Story and Art by Ernie Colon

Story and Art by Arthur Suydam

“Metamorphosis Odyssey: Za!”
Story and Art by Jim Starlin

“Metamorphosis Odyssey: Juliet”
Story and Art by Jim Starlin

Story and Art by Carl Potts

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, Marvel began to exert a stranglehold on the comic book industry, slowly and surely leaving the Distinguished Competition in the rearview mirror in terms of both sales and status. But the powers that used to be were still not satisfied, soon setting their sights on another slice of the already stuffed newsstand pie: Creepy, Eerie, and other black-and-white magazines published by Warren. Promising buckets of blood and bits of boobs, these releases were unencumbered by the restrictions of the Comic Code Authority stamp of approval.  

It’s not that Marvel didn’t already have magazine experience. In 1964, they launched Monsters to Laugh With, a 36-page, black-and-whiter with the cover price of 25¢, more than double the cost of a regular 12¢ color comic. The magazine was filled with photos from old horror movies — mostly Universal fare — with supposedly humorous captions supposedly written by Stan the Man. After the third issue, the name was changed to Monsters Unlimited. I have never seen a copy, but it sounds horrendous: which it probably was since the whole shebang was cancelled after issue #7 in 1966. Marvel actually resurrected the creaky concept in 1972, with Monster Madness, a 60¢ magazine that lasted for just three issues.

Then, in July of 1968, the House of Ideas gave it another shot. But this time, they stepped up to the plate with their heaviest hitter, the webslinger himself, releasing The Spectacular Spider-Man, a 35¢, 68-page black-and-white magazine. The main story, “Lo, This Monster,” was written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita with inks by Jim Mooney. There was also a back-up piece that retold Spidey’s origin by Lee, Larry Lieber and Bill Everett. The Marvel University review wasn’t very positive and the magazine sold poorly, lost in the glut. But that didn’t stop Marvel from publishing The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 in November of the same year. Returning Stan and Jazzy John, this one was printed in full color — perhaps Lee thought the krazy kids were turned off by the somber scheme of the first issue. Plus, instead of the generic villain of the premiere, Peter Parker’s most notorious foe, the Green Goblin, was on hand this time. But these improvements didn’t boost the magazine’s fortunes and The Spectacular Spider-Man was finally put to rest. However, Marvel was far from done with its full-size experiment.

In May 1971, Savage Tales appeared, headlined by another top seller, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Priced at 50¢ and offering 68 pages, the premiere issue was a bit of a mixed bag. While it did include the excellent Roy Thomas/Barry Smith “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and the debut appearance of Man-Thing, the rest of the stories — including a routine but foretelling Ka-Zar adventure and the often-reprinted “The Fury of the Femizons” — were generally bland. Readers must have agreed since the magazine was immediately cancelled. However, Savage Tales was raised from the dead in October of 1973 and would continue on until #11 (July 1975). Issues #2 and #3 featured what I consider Marvel’s ultimate achievement in the ’70s, the two-part “Red Nails” by the Rascally One and Not-Yet-Windsor Smith. With contributions by Gil Kane, Neal Adams and Jim Starlin, the quality of the lead Conan stories was remarkably high. But, after the Cimmerian — and Roy Thomas — jumped to The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian magazine in August 1974, the drab Ka-Zar became the headliner with issue #6 (September 1974). Needless to say, things unraveled quickly.

While the aforementioned Monster Madness returned and quickly went in ’72, the floodgates opened in 1973. In quick succession, Marvel began publishing the Mad Magazine-rip off Crazy; one issue of the prose digest Haunt of Horror, which would reappear in 1974 in a comic format; Dracula Lives!, a stand-alone companion to The Tomb of Dracula; Monsters Unleashed, an anthology title featuring Man-Thing, Werewolf by Night and Frankenstein’s Monster; Tales of the Zombie, starring an undead character originally created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1953; and, finally, as if anyone needed another blood-sucking black-and-whiter, Vampire Tales. Except for Crazy, which continued on until 1983, none of these efforts survived beyond 1975, most lasting only a dozen or so issues. I’d be surprised if a single professorial tear was shed over any of these cancellations.

Marvel continued to crank ’em out in 1974. The underground-styled Comix Book lasted three issues — for some resin-soaked reason, Kitchen Sink Press revived it in 1976 for two more. Next up was Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a not-so-fancy-footed attempt to cash in on the current “chopsocky” craze. The martial arts mag starred a mixed-bag of Shang Chi, The Sons of the Tiger, Iron Fist and others. By the way, I was completely mystified by the Kung Fu explosion during this era: call me a philistine, but did Bruce Lee actually make a good movie? Anyways, Deadly Hands had a pretty decent stretch for a Marvel magazine, lasting until February 1977 and 33 issues — each one viciously ravaged by the scornful reviews of Dean Pete. We also had the introduction of Monsters of the Movies, a Famous Monsters of Filmland pastiche that limped to eight issues; Professor Joe’s beloved Planet of the Apes, another fairly successful title that Ma, Ma-ed all the way to #29 (February 1977); and the previously mentioned The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian, Marvel’s best and longest running black-and-white magazine, which hacked its way to 1995. By Crom.

1975 saw the debut of Doc Savage, which pulped out eight issues; Gothic Tales of Love, another prose magazine that lost its romance after three doomed releases — as did Kull and the Barbarians, a title that focused on other Robert E. Howard characters besides Conan. We also had Masters of Terror, a reprint series that terrorized no one for two issues, and the anthology title Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, enjoyed by Professor Gilbert through its six-issue run. The year also saw the introduction of Marvel Preview, a showcase book that spotlighted Blade, Dominic Fortune, Santana, and others not popular enough to warrant their own color comic. Of note, #11 featured the first union of the legendary X-team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin and Tom Orzechowski on a rather unremarkable Star-Lord story. Preview would also be one of the few magazines to outlast Marvel University, running until August 1980 when it was rebranded Bizarre Adventures and continued on until February 1983.

The one-shot Marvel Super Action, featuring the Punisher, Dominic Fortune, the Huntress aka Mockingbird, and Doug Moench and Mike Ploog’s first “Weirdworld” story, was the only new Marvel magazine to flounder on the stands in 1976. But two more hit the streets the following year. The Rampaging Hulk was based on an intriguing idea, filling in the “missing adventures” between the cancellation of the green goliath’s first solo series, The Incredible Hulk #6 (March 1963) and his reappearance in the pages of Tales to Astonish #59 (September 1964). That premise lasted until #10 when the series was retitled to simply The Hulk! and began to reflect the dreaded “human interest” themes currently rampant in The Incredible Hulk CBS TV show. The reboot also included the switch to the vibrant Marvelcolor, a painted technique also used in another 1977 debut, Marvel Super Special. The Specials were a mix of movie adaptations and superhero stuff: the first issue, urgh, was printed in REAL KISS BLOOD and became one of Marvel’s most profitable releases ever. Both the Hulk! and Marvel Super Special outlasted MU’s curriculum, plodding on until June 1981 and November 1986 respectively. 

As Marvel University began to wind down in the tail end of 1979, two more magazines confusingly appeared. After The Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck were cancelled, someone somewhere decided to resurrect both series in the flagging black-and-white magazine format — using basically the same creative teams that saw the color comics to their conclusion. Not surprisingly, Drac’s mag got the stake after only six issues while Howard’s would waddle off after nine. Though they both lasted beyond MU’s December 1979 shutdown: that’s something at least.
While I might have missed a few, The House of Ideas published 24 magazines from 1964 to December 1979, the last month covered by Marvel University. When 1980 began, only five of them were still in circulation. Well, seven if you count the dead-on-arrival Dracula and Duck newcomers. Not a very good success rate. But still they forged on. During the fall of ’79, ads for something called Odyssey — “The Next Plateau!” — began to appear in the still-standing magazines I covered. What the heck was this, I wondered, not remembering anything with that title. But, while reviewing The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #45 (October 1979), the lightbulb went on with page 62:

It seems that Marvel announced Odyssey, their latest and greatest magazine to be eventually cancelled, before someone bothered to check if the name was already used. And it was. By at least seven other publications in print at the time. So, Epic it was and the promotional ads were tweaked. Soon after, the hyperbole machine known as Stan’s Soapbox went into hyperdrive, assaulting the readers of Marvel’s color comics with news of the next big thing that couldn’t be missed. Simply put, Epic Illustrated was promised to be the most mind-blowing magazine ever — and then some.

Basically a Heavy Metal knockoff, Epic Illustrated debuted during a rather tumultuous time in the history of comics. Talent was jumping back and forth between Marvel and DC, looking for the better deal. Personally, it felt that more people were abandoning the former for the latter — and were immediately branded as traitors in my book. Losing George Perez to the enemy was particularly galling. The New Teen Titans could eat my crap. In hindsight, it’s totally understandable why Gorgeous George would jump to DC for a fatter paycheck. From Day One, Marvel’s employees operated under a “Work for Hire” contract, freelancers paid for the amount of work they could churn out. Plus, the publisher owned everything the writer or artist created, from new characters to the finished pages themselves. But, by the time Epic came out, things were beginning to change. The term “creator owned” started surfacing and, slowly but surely, creative types were gaining the rights to their ideas and illustrations — and actually sharing the profits in some cases. For all its limitations, Epic Illustrated was one of Marvel’s first forays into this sudden shift of funnybook economics.

Priced at $2.00 and running 100 pages, the premiere issue of Epic Illustrated fell considerably short of the advanced hullabaloo. Not that it is bad, simply scatter shot and uninspiring: nothing really sticks in the brain after the final page is done. However, it got off to a fabulous start. From Earl Norem to Joe Jusko, Marvel’s magazines always boasted ultra-talented cover painters. But thanks to the sterling reputation of Archie Goodwin, Epic’s editor, they managed to net the biggest fish of them all: Frank Frazetta. No small feat since Frank was always well protected by his wife, Ellie. And if you can’t get somewhat enthused by the lead story, the 8-page “The Answer,” perhaps you should depart for DC yourself. It’s a Silver Surfer/Galactus fable by Stan Lee and John Buscema, the original team on the classic four-color comic. Here, they are joined by inker Rudy Nebres, a frequent black-and-white cohort of Big John, and painter Rick Vietch, best known for his work on Swamp Thing.  While the artwork is colorfully cosmic, Stan’s story is a wisp. On a remote asteroid, the sentinel pleads for his master to reveal what is beyond the end of the universe. When Galactus states that there is no answer, the Surfer soars off to find out himself, plunging into a black hole — but when he exits the other side, the being formerly known as Norrin Radd finds himself back where he started. Resigned, the Surfer concludes that the answer lies within us. Uh, OK.

Next up is another 8-pager, “Homespun” by Wendy Pini, who along with her husband Richard, created the cloying Elfquest. Tony Isabella also used them as characters in his ghastly Ghost Rider run. Now I’ve always found Wendy’s art way too cute and cartoony, and it overwhelms the somewhat interesting story. A sprite-like race called the Petalwings lives in a forbidden forest, spinning silken wrapstuff around any animal unlucky to fall asleep in their domain. Suddenly, two half-naked young lovers, Malak and Selah, burst into the woods, escaping the girl’s chieftain father, Olbar, and his men — Malak failed his trail of manhood and was judged unworthy of Selah’s hand. The youngsters soon have sex under a moss-covered tree, the hidden Petalwings oohing and ahhing. When Olbar and his troops arrive, the sprites volunteer to help the lovers and drive away the pursuers. Afterwards, Malak and Selah bed down for the night — soon to be wrapped in the deadly wrapstuff. Again, the brief proceedings are too precocious for my tastes, but Selah only wears a bikini bottom throughout and the colorwork is outstanding. 

Argentinean artist Leo Duranona, a Warren regular, contributes the 4-page “Aware.” The characters, a bald and topless woman and an astronaut wonder “What are we? Where are we?” against an ever-changing background — and they only see each other as flat lines. Yes, if you haven’t guessed, they are illustrations created by an artist’s pencil. Duranona’s art is basically black-and-white, but he adds shades of orange and some of the backgrounds are photorealistic. It’s a nice effect.

While a complete lark, Bob Larkin’s full-color, 3-page “For the Next 60 Seconds” just might be my favorite piece of the entire first issue of Epic Illustrated. As a boozing schlub watches TV, the Emergency Broadcast System test interrupts an episode of “The Honeymooners.” With the message droning on, the entire planet erupts in flames — as the burning TV continues to blare “if this had been an actual emergency…” Why did I enjoy this one so much? First, if you squint just the right way, Larkin’s art looks like the work of certified genius Drew Friedman — perhaps the highest compliment I can pay. Plus, in the second panel, there’s a fake line of dialogue from Jackie Gleason’s classic show: “Don’t touch me, Ralph, I’m sterile.” Epic #1 could have used a lot more of this subversive silliness.

Enhanced by brushes of pale colors, “Lullaby of Bedlam” is by Ray Rue: couldn’t find much info on him above and beyond credits on this and a few Heavy Metal issues. The art is quite good, with finely detailed faces — the griffin-like monster with the head of an Indian god is particularly effective. The 12-page story is strictly by-the-numbers though. Doctor David Walker enters the nightmares of his sister Emily: she is trapped within by a variety of horrific creatures. While he manages to free her, David becomes a prisoner instead, as his actual body dies from a heart attack. Again, nice phantasmagorical scenery but pretty dull overall.

“Fantasies” collects three one-pagers by Mirko IIić, “a talented Yugoslavian.” The still-living artist went on to great acclaim, becoming both a cartoonist and editor at The New York Times. He also created the title sequence for You’ve Got Mail, if that floats your boat. The stark black-and-white artwork simply screams “European,” and is excellently effective. In “History of Human Absurdity,” two futuristic soldiers hide behind a high wall. When one peeks through a bullet hole in the concrete, his brains are blown out. As IIić pulls out in the final panel, an identical wall, 60 yards or so away, hides two enemy sharpshooters: they simply wait until the holes in the opposite barrier go dark before firing. “The Victor” is a short about two men on an alien landscape. The dark-haired one moans that he has lost his happiness. The blonde gives him a small metallic ball, saying “here it is … happiness,” adding that he keeps his own behind the doorknob on his chest. Greedily, the dark one decapitates the gift giver, claiming both balls for himself. “Shakti” presents five horizontal panels, each pulling back from a magnificent white horse. There’s some very brief text explaining that the horse is not waiting for a master, but a rider to share their path. As I said, “European.” Rather enjoyed all three and amazing details come into focus the closer you look. 

The Puerto Rican artist Ernie Colon also goes totally black-and-white in “Convert,” another “you can see it coming” effort. The portly Friar Alzx, “the-man-with-direct-pipeline-to-Shamsha-Ishtar-and-Adad, gods-of-sun-and-light,” travels the universe bringing religion to the savages. When he lands on a plant inhabited by Native American-types, he proves his power by de-evolving one of the heathens back to the sperm stage. The fat friar then places a headset on a shaman and promises to reveal all he knows about his peoples’ good book, history, technology, and all the rest — afterwards, the tribesman will be ripe for conversion. But, of course, it backfires: with his new-found knowledge, the shaman soon turns Alzx’s powers against him and the friar’s head ends up on the night’s dinner buffet. Like much of what the magazine has to offer, “Convert” is fine but far from epic.

The ultra-prolific Arthur Suydam — who has Conan credits that I should seek out — checks in with the 7-page “Heads.” You could say that Suydam belongs to the Richard Corben school, but I’ve always felt that Arthur was much more … well, artistic. While every character has one, not sure why the title is “Heads.” A drug reference I guess. A muscular but mindless brute flees through lush grasslands, pursued from a distance by two fish-like reptilian creatures, one singing “Rocky Raccoon” while riding a giant frog. When the sub-human stumbles, he knocks himself unconscious, squishing the queen of a race of tiny mushroom beings.  Enraged, they drag him underground and stuff him full of spores in an attempt to grow a new queen. Just as one does, the brute wakes up and lurches forward, bursting through the soil above — frightening off his pursuers who had camped out on that very spot. Wiping the fungus from his face, he hops off on the titanic toad left behind in the panic. I liked this one, it’s beautifully stoopid. There’s an outstanding color wash on display, mostly shades of yellow. And Suydam chips in with our first penis if you are counting. 

Like Suydam, Carl Potts had a very solid comics career, though I guess he is most known as a writer. Which is a good thing, since I always found his illustrations, while professionally composed, cold and hollow. At only three pages, “Topaz” falls the flattest of any story covered. A satyr boasts to his beautiful female companion — perfectly formed breasts exposed natch — of his architectural prowess, presenting his M. C. Escher-inspired house in the last panel. And? Or better yet, why? Sure, Potts must have spent considerable time on that final illustration, but what was the point? 

Now I went a bit out of order to save the first three chapters of Jim Starlin’s “Metamorphosis Odyssey” for last: I assume that most would consider this the big-ticket item of Epic Illustrated #1. In the late ’70s, Jim left Marvel after butting heads with Editor-in-Chief Gerry Conway, taking his typewriter and pencils to DC in a huff. But two words drew him back to the fold: creator owned. “Metamorphosis Odyssey” would take nearly two years to complete, finally ending with Chapter XIV in issue #9 (December 1981) — and each splash page would include © J. P. Starlin. The placement of this issue’s three installments is peculiar: there are four stories separating Chapters I and II, but the third follows immediately after the second.

The very talky plot is propelled by the Zygoteans, a race of ruthless humanoids that jump from planet to planet, transforming the inhabitants into unquestioning slaves that strip bare their own world. The invaders then depart for their next conquest, leaving the few survivors to starve and ultimately perish in the desolation. Chapters I to III are named after the three disparate beings that join together to finally defeat the Zygoteans — at least I assume they will eventually, not having read the conclusion. First up is the man-god Lord Aknaton, the last of the Egyptian-like Orsirosians and protector of the ultimate weapon, the Infinity Horn. Chapter II introduces the powerful and primitive Za from Tyjor, a planet so bereft of life that his race has evolved into cannibalism — however, Aknaton has blessed him with an intelligence that far outstrips his kind. Finally, there is 15-year-old Juliet from Covert, Kansas, a sudden orphan after the Zygoteans invade their next target, Earth. After Aknaton and Za pick up Juliet in the Orsirosian’s pyramid-shaped ship, they all fly away to safety. From a distance, Aknaton detonates the entire nuclear stockpile on our planet, understanding that instant destruction is far better than slowly withering under Zygotean rule.

While I am far from a rabid Starlin fanatic, he’s obviously a talented artist and writer. But I found the first three chapters of “Metamorphosis Odyssey” a bit underwhelming. The art is superb and his use of monochromatic grays is very impressive. But I think Jim missed out by not using full color: the rich and detailed worlds he created would have been much more vibrant. And there’s too much somber navel gazing for my tastes. Plus, I rolled my eyes after the first few pages of “Juliet.” It opens with her family listening to news of the Zygotean invasion on the radio. After two pages of horrifying reportage on the burning of New York City and the fall of the Soviet Union, the announcer cheerily segues into “Meanwhile, on the sports scene, St. Louis clobbered …” Really? Earth is being destroyed by aliens and Major League Baseball is still rolling along? “Now up Pedro Borbon … and please ignore the deathship hovering above centerfield.”

On a related note, Starlin introduced Vanth Dreadstar in Chapter V (Epic #3, September 1980), a character that would get his own series in Epic Comics, the creator-owned imprint Marvel launched in 1982. And I must add that my digital copy of Epic Illustrated #1 was missing four articles: “The Next Plateau,” an — we must assume hysterical — editorial by Stan Lee; “Elfspire,” a preview of an upcoming text story; “Detour,” a short story by George Bush — not sure if he was H. W. or just W.; and Archie Goodwin’s “Endgame,” a 1-pager on the contributors to the first issue.

In the history of Marvel’s magazine line, Epic Illustrated had a fairly long shelf life, making it to February 1986 with issue #34: ultimately, the mediocre sales couldn’t support the high production costs. Along the way, it featured work by Roy Thomas, another defector drawn in by the creator-owned format, Steve Bissette, Samuel R. Delany, Michael Golden, Dennis O'Neil, Ken Steacy, The Brothers Hildebrandt, Neal Adams, John Bolton, Chris Claremont, Basil Wolverton, Richard Corben, Jim Steranko, and many, many more, including Barry Freakin’ Windsor-Smith. While Epic Illustrated might never have reached “The Next Plateau,” it certainly gave it a go with some of the biggest names in the game. 

Besides, is a plateau all that great? It’s basically half a mountain with a flat top. Whoopee.

In Two Weeks!
Claremont and Man-Thing
by Professor Matthew Bradley!


  1. Outstanding work, my esteemed colleague. Although most of Marvel's earlier experiments with magazine formats were covered in our undergraduate curriculum, some perhaps receiving more attention than they deserved, it is extra-satisfying to read about EPIC in its full historical context. Nice job.

  2. Nicely done article, especially the historical context. I don't think the magazines received to much attention. It often was very interesting. Even if it was HULK Magazine :-)

    I tried so hard to like EPIC, but I never could work up enough enthusiasm to buy it regulary. The stories lacked the bite of Heavy Metal - and frankly I thought that many of the b/w horror stories were more edgy -, and I really didn't want to read a Galactus story in this kind of magazine. Marvel played it too safe with this one.

  3. A most magnificent look at the Marvel Mag mayhem! Great insights and commentary, Prof. Tom, including much I didn't know. I may have had one issue of Epic, but honestly I don't know why I would have bought it back then.

  4. I recall seeing the first issue when it was published, and in checking it out coming away disappointed. It was if Marvel had not so much seen a niche that needed filling, as more seeing the critical success that Heavy Metal had been and figuring "Why can't we get in on that action?" The only problem was that no-one there seemed to really grasp how different HM was to the standard Marvel fare, and they either couldn't or weren't willing to really let go and try something different.

    As Mr Decker put it above (more or less) "A Galactus story? Really?" Marvel breaks its bonds, ventures into new vistas of publishing, and all they can lead off with is a Galactus/Silver Surfer short story? By this time Stan Lee had been out of the game enough for this story (which might have been effective ten years earlier) to come over as tired and by-the-numbers.

    Now Wendy Pini is probably a really nice person - she certainly came over as such in the interview which appeared in The Comics Journal eons ago...but that whole Elfquest thing has never come across to me as anything other than painfully twee. Unfortunately the kind of twee that other "creative" souls, eg the beloved Mr Claremont, presumably find enchanting (and worth referencing - or worse, simulating - over in a popular mutant title). Still, whatever floats your boat...but it certainly didn't bode well for what to expect in future issues.

    Now, Jim Starlin...A review of his Metamorphosis whatsit at the time pointed out that despite it being painted (surely the mark of comics maturity in those days), it was not painted particularly well. It seemed that in order to throw the gouache down, JS dispensed with anything interesting in terms of layout, storytelling or even any of his usual bag of visual tricks/tics. And the script was so leaden and portentious that one suspects that he was making it up as he went along with no idea how it would end or even *if* it would end).

    I think I only ever bought the one more issue of Epic (the one with the Neal Adams lead strip), but they seemed to get by without me quite well for a while, so what do I know?

  5. I remember reading this comics.
    Now we can see them on the movie.
    Watch Spider-man:Homecoming online