Saturday, October 18, 2008

Doug Tells: Why We Like the Marvel Visionaries series

At the August 2007 WizardWorld Chicago comic convention I plunked down some cold, hard cash for three books that have become treasures in my reprint collection: the Marvel Visionaries hardcover volumes for John Buscema, John Romita, Sr., and Roy Thomas.

I am very excited that I bought the Visionaries books. I won't post the exact contents here, but you should know that a simple search on will reveal that information for you for all of the volumes in the series. You should know, too, that these books are larger than the Masterworks volumes, and at around $35, they cost A LOT less!

Of the three, the John Romita, Sr. book is perhaps the most redundant to my collection. I have the John Romita Sketchbook from Vanguard, as well as a John Romita hardcover published by Marvel several years ago (which I bought firsthand from the Jazzy one at an art gallery when he was in Chicago hyping the giclee that he and Alex Ross did of Spidey vs. the Goblin). Anyway, much of the material in this Visionaries volume was reprinted there, as well as the oft-reprinted ASM 39-40 and 50. Of note, however, is some 1950's Captain America work, as well as some Cap stuff from the late '60's-early '70's. Two issues of his FF run immediately after Kirby left for DC are also in the book; it's funny to see that Romita (or Sinnott) tried to ape Kirby's look rather than let John work his own magic. It’s one of John’s faults – the continual admission that he never felt comfortable penciling, that he always felt he lived in Kirby’s shadow. The reality for me, anyway, is that Romita is one of the most integral creators at Marvel, and gave them their “look” as Nick Cardy helped to give DC their “look” at approximately the same time. At any rate, this is an essential volume because of the nice package and survey of all periods of John's work; but like I stated earlier, there really isn't any surprising material.

Of the remaining two volumes, if I'm ranking, I guess I'd place the Roy Thomas edition second. And that's tough to say -- there are some great stories in it!! What strikes me, however, is what a great survey of Marvel art this volume presents! The work of Gene Colan, Marie Severin, Don Heck, John Buscema, George Klein, Dan Adkins, Mike Esposito, Gil Kane, Tom Palmer, Neal Adams, John Verpoorten, Herb Trimpe, John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Barry Windsor-Smith, Alan Weiss, Dick Giordano, Frank Robbins, Vince Colletta, George Perez, and Jackson Guice is all between the covers, and wonderfully reprinted in fine color (not too bright, as is often my complaint of these retooled volumes – I particularly find the Masterworks series guilty of this. Newsprint was generally muddy – brightening it too much takes away from the original feel). As all books in the series are surveys of the history of a particular artist, this volume showcases the evolution of the company. Essential stories are, of course, Avengers #'s 57-58 and Sub-Mariner #8, which again are often reprinted. The treat in the book for me, though, is Amazing Adventures #8 featuring Neal Adams art on the Inhumans and the Avengers. We just don't see that type of thing in reprint form! Some of Roy's black-and-white work is in here as well, but alas (as is the case in the Buscema volume) no Conan.

Lastly, to no one's surprise (at least no one who has followed this blog or my musings on the Avengers Assemble! message boards) as my favorite, is the John Buscema volume.

The editors made great choices for this -- it truly is the essential John Buscema. And what strikes me most about this book (and to a lesser extent the Romita book) is that what I hold in my hands is truly an evolution of John's work. His late '50's stuff is very rough compared to what we came to know and love in the Silver and Bronze Ages. I think Buscema hit his stride after the examples in the book where he drew over Kirby's lay-outs. I have read in multiple resources that John did not like to have to do that, but when looking at his work in a linear, historical fashion there is no mistaking the King's influence (on Romita, too). Also vital to the Buscema fan is the effect of different inkers on John's pencils. Inkers here include Frank Giacoia, John Tartaglione, Mike Esposito, George Roussos, Sal Buscema, John Romita, Sr., Tom Palmer, Joe Sinnott, John Verpoorten, Syd Shores, Rudy Nebres, Bill Sienkiewicz (my least favorite, bar none), and Stephanie Cerwinski (who is John's granddaughter!). John's first Avengers work (#41-42) is here, as is the pin-up from Annual #2. Later, #'s 75-76 are reprinted, in my mind to pay homage to John's Conan work (Dark Horse currently holds the licensing to Conan and Tarzan properties, and this volume suffers because of it), as that story included Arkon. The treasure in the volume may be Marvel Spotlight #30, with the Warriors Three; Sinnott remarks in his Brush Strokes With Greatness (TwoMorrows) that this was the first time he inked Buscema when John turned in loose breakdowns and Joe had to finish the job. The end result is striking, and it's neat to see Sinnott "do" John Buscema -- there's no mistaking John's presence on the page. One more thing -- Silver Surfer #4 is in here, too, and is in my humble opinion John's standard, his masterpiece. Buscema’s mastery is here – from the almost-splash of Norrin Radd with the animals of Africa to the majesty of Asgard to the brutality of the joust. All comic art should be compared to that single issue. Wow...

Additionally, I’d comment that these volumes contain little text aside from the comic stories. I believe Roy Thomas takes a few pages here and there to comment on the issues included in his volume. He also writes a lengthy introduction to the Buscema volume. A nice touch in the Thomas book is the inclusion of the letters page from FF #176 (where the Impossible Man goes berserk in the Marvel Bullpen) where Roy explains the impetus for that issue. All volumes in the series have dust jackets with additional art and minor commentary; the right side of the jacket has writer/artist profiles. At the conclusions of the Romita, Sr. and Buscema volumes there are some original pencils, watercolors, and character drafts that add a nice touch. However, these types of things only add 3-4 pages to the book and are not to be considered as an expansive sketchbook, et al. Sometimes I think commentary from Stan Lee, Thomas, or other Marvel editors might have been nice to “set the table” for a given story, but that might have perhaps upped the cost and/or dropped the page count for each tome.

At the back of the Buscema volume, there is a four-page story, credited as unpublished but intended for a magazine called "Marvel Italia". The exhibit in the book is a reproduction of John's pencils for the story, which included Loki, Thor, and the Silver Surfer. The pages come courtesy of Sal Velluto, who was the intended inker. I actually have a pencil and ball point pen rough on sketch-paper to page 3 of this story! It is obvious that John sketched it out, liked it, and using a light box reproduced the page onto comic artboard. And there it was, right in the book in my hands! When I first came across this, I made a quick trip to the basement to gather the portfolio in which I keep my non-framed art and viola! My wife was quite impressed...

The Roy Thomas volume contains a very interesting story in regard to inkers, and I guess I’d like to highlight it as one of the many reasons to check out this volume. We've mentioned several times (both here and on the AA! boards) about the power inkers have over pencillers -- Joe Sinnott often being the main subject of those conversations. I would encourage all who are able to view a copy of X-Men #64, the introduction and origin of Sunfire. The issue is credited to Don Heck (filling in for Neal Adams at the time) and Tom Palmer. Palmer is credited as the "embellisher" -- understanding that there can be a difference between inks and embellishing, I would say "did he EVER!"This issue may be the single-most beautiful book ever attributed to Don Heck, and we have Tom Palmer to thank. Given Heck's output at the time (I believe he was on the way out at Marvel and heading to Wonder Woman, et al. at DC), I can honestly say that there are only 3-4 figures in the entire story that one could look at and say, "Yeah, Don Heck's art". Palmer exerts his influence in such a way that this story flows near-seamlessly between the Adams before and after. I truly can't understand why Heck wasn't just credited with lay-outs, thumbnails, whatever -- he's just not in the book.That being said, we've discussed Sinnott and how he "saved" Kirby at times; we could have a similar discussion of Palmer exerting the same type of influence over Buscema's pencils in his last Avengers run (around Under Siege, Acts of Vengeance, etc.) when John was doing very loose lay-outs and Palmer the finishes; it was Palmer who kept the "look" from Buscema to Steve Epting to whoever-came-next. But I'm just surprised that we see this from Palmer so early on in his career.I'm not complaining, don't get me wrong. This is an extremely eye-pleasing story, and Roy Thomas writes a wonderful tale to boot. I just found it interesting given what I'd come to expect from Don Heck in that era how much un-Heck-like the book was.

Other volumes in the series include Stan Lee, two for Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Chris Claremont, and John Romita, Jr. Any would make a valuable addition to the library of the Silver and Bronze Age Marvel enthusiast!

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