Could be part 1-and-only for all I know... I found this guy in a shop totally at random and the other issues I ordered online haven't arrived yet. If they stand up, more installments will be forthcoming.
DC Showcase featuring Manhunter 2070 #91. By Mike Sekowsky with Vince Colletta. DC.
I show this comic's cover in a board and bag above because that's how it first appeared to me: in a fifty cent bin like all the rest, sandwiched between shrapnelled issues of Secret Society of Supervillains and Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Negative Exposure. I love what boards and bags do to comics, how new and special they make them look. They remind an overanalyzer like myself that for a lot of people these things are fetish objects, bought and preserved and read hurriedly, furtively even, powerful secret totems that are not to be questioned. I used to read comics like that. I miss it, but there's no going back. The board and bag did something especially wonderful to this particular comic. Sitting there in its preservative coffin it looked for a second not like a Silver Age relic by the first dude to ever draw the Justice League, not like one of the old beater books that you always find in the discount bins. It looked almost of a part with the rest of the comics, the superhero detritus of 1999-2007 or so.
And yet. If I saw a modern superhero comic with that cover I would fucking flip my shit, you know? That completely assured, completely unselfconscious mixture of cartoon and realist drawing, that strangely looping title script, that giant corporate logo in the upper left, the expressionist masks of those alien faces. The way the light passed through the plastic of the board and bag onto that gloriously non-unified color scheme, lime green and blood red and desert yellow mixed together into a way of pictures that we haven't seen in years. It's all here, and so casually. Code-approved. I bought it, looked inside.
Maybe it's just because living in the times you live in makes them feel more urgent and self-important than they actually are, but I can't remember much casual experimentation within the mainstream over the past half decade. Brendan McCarthy's outta-nowhere shorts aside, it's like Jemas-era Marvel was the capstone for a tradition that pulsed long and heavy for the years that ended there and started, well, about here. This comic was released in mid-1970: Marvel had definitively stolen DC's biggest-publisher crown, the undergrounds were waning, pretty much every superhero franchise that's still around today had been created. It was the beginning of lean times for mainstream comics, the comedown off what will all but certainly forever remain the hero industry's greatest moment biting in hard. Things had changed in comics, and things would change more still. The quasi-underground publication Witzend was reintroducing the theory of artist over character to a mainstream that'd abandoned it since compiler Wally Wood's salad days at EC Comics, testing creator-owned genre strips like Steve Ditko's Mr. A on an audience that, like the material, gravitated toward an area somewhere in between the scruffy total-freedom undergrounds and the suffocating banality that the heroes were already falling victim to.
In time, independent publishing would gain its foothold in comics by exploiting this very territory, offering the more talented, further-out Marvel and DC hacks an arena to go a little wilder, throw down a little harder, get paid a little more. Books by companies like First and Eclipse, by creators like Jim Starlin and Mike Grell and Howard Chaykin, may not look all too different from the rest of the genre crop in the brilliant light of today's fusion-comics world, but the simple opportunity to drop house style from the stories and cape'n'cowl inflection from the art kicked off a movement that hero comics are still feeling the benefits of today. The Frazer Irvings, the JH Williamses, the McCarthys can only find a place in today's Big Two because the genre books that stretched a little past the boundaries proved it's really okay not to look like Kirby or sound like Lee. In one of the most creatively repressive areas of comics, they proved that you could do your own thing and still make some money at it.
But before that it was a lot dicier. There's a reason the early-mid '70s are littered with so many far-out gems of bizarro expression that seem like they should never have been a part of mainstream comics: they shouldn't have. The Howard the Ducks and Fourth World sagas weren't Marvel or DC's province, but given that those two were the only game in town and, like I said, it was a failing market, some of the business leaked through anyway -- usually in places like Showcase, the venerable DC new-title-tryout book that round about a decade earlier had given birth or rebirth to the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, the Justice League, ad nauseam. If Mike Sekowsky, the career DC workhorse whose oeuvre stretches back to the high Golden Age and spans a million competently-drawn comics, many of them starring famous characters, had wanted to do his Manhunter 2070 book ten or fifteen years later, he would have done it as a slick, ongoing creator-owned at Eclipse or somewhere similar. It fits right in with the orbiting space-junk that the early independents traded in, excellently drawn by a craftsman who put a bit more time and thought into it than usual, production value a little higher than average, eschewing the flying men for another, equally hackneyed genre -- just as long as no one's wearing a cape, for godsake -- and covering up the strange sense of absence inherent in superheroless comics drawn by a superhero artist with a breeze of extra inspiration.
The difference between MH2070 and the raft of similar books that followed in its wake after a decade's interval is in the style of the thing. Where the best books of the '80s creator-owned boom (Chaykin's American Flagg, Rogers' Captain Quick) pointed their visions far into the future -- such that they've only begun to feel "modern" in the past few years -- Sekowsky's book is stridently of the past, incorporating none of the emblematic '70s grit and scramble for higher ground or even any real influence from the Marvel Age cats. No, stylistically, Manhunter is a classic-era DC book through and through, a science-laced permabulation through the stars drawn in the rarefied, technically superb Infantino/Toth house style. The calendars will tell you this book's less than 15 years removed from American Flagg, but where it counts the temporal distance is more like half a century.
And that's what makes Sekowsky's book so interesting. He's playing the same song he always did, probably the only one he knew how to play; but the exhilaration and verve he puts into his moment in the spotlight -- with good colors, with no heroes, with no writers -- nonetheless belongs to a tomorrow he would never be a part of. Standing on the teetering platform between the two eras, an artist rooted in the past, pointing to the future, he draws...
Let's take a look.
(soundtrack, listen loud)
Page 1: Right off the bat, this comic hits a little different than its contemporaries, discarding the obligatory opening splash in favor of a simultaneous-image montage full of white space that sets the pictures in an infinite background. No panel borders: it all just floats there, not tied together but somehow still cohesive. I know I just said that Sekowsky doesn't display much Marvel influence in this book, but this page is the first of a few notable exceptions, all of which point to the study of one Marvel artist: Jim Steranko. This comics page-as-mural approach looks to my eyes like a definite attempt at a Steranko-style presentation switch-up, though done in a rickety, asymmetrical way that lacks the graphic design verve of the master. It's still interesting, though, the planets sprinkling out into the text and the cartooning styles switching up fast and furious on the alien-thug portraiture.
If more proof's needed as to the Steranko derivation, check out that bit of destroyed rocket ship at bottom left. The chiaroscuro and detailed machinery go back to Wally Wood, but the tight, technical Cubist pen detailing on the rockets is pure Steranko, as is the bold use of color against massively spotted blacks.
It's important to note the Steranko influence on this book, especially given how Sekowsky leads with it: in 1970 Steranko was the furthest-out artist the mainstream had ever seen, and it would be a few years before the next generation really emerged to walk in his footsteps. (That next generation, of course, would provide the mainstream-moonlighter backbone of the early independents with not a few significant vertebrae: Starlin, Rogers, Chaykin, Steve Rude, et al.) Until then it was all stuff like this, somewhat uncertain bats at the bold new style Steranko had crammed his pages with. Still, in '70 even the most rudimentary Steranko alignment was some kind of a statement, as Neal Adams and his subsequent followers had emerged to steer mainstream comics art back into a more traditionally illustrative, exaggerated-realism mode. Look at a comic nowadays: that's the stuff that won out, boring lines and figurework not pop art and colors. Sekowsky puts himself on the losing team from page one, but man does that space-fragment look gorgeous to me.
Page 2 panel 1: The Style of Mike Sekowsky. This stuff is mad derivative, mixing more-or-less-equal parts Toth subtractvism, Infantino designy staging, Caniff black-spotting with a workmanlike slapdash quality and liberal bits of whoever-was-inking-him (Vince Colletta in this case, the trademark thin pen line very much in evidence). Somehow it's a beguiling mixture, putting spiky angles where Caniff and Toth favored soft shapes (the mountains) and going all cartoon-minimalist on the figures and equipment. Stuff like the almost-sketched faces, the lack of holding lines on the spaceman in orange's left arm and his silhouetted hands, the naturalistic-yet-stiff body language of the alien -- it's obvious Sekowsky can really draw. That he chooses to forgo detail in favor of the rich environment and strange atmospherics of panels like this one only testifies to it.
Page 3 panel 1: The cat at lower left is Starker, our hero, the titular Manhunter. A grizzled, driven battle vet of few words and impeccable taste, he recalls Steranko's Nick Fury and brings along a very Steranko-esque panel. Tilted camera, hot girls used as scenery, flashy space background, and the big intruding op-art device of the monochrome die: it's all part and parcel of the Jaunty Jim playbook, and making the protagonist the kind of motherfucker who puts all his cash on black 13, black thirteen, the first time we see him goes right along. Starker, though, whether through total naivete or immensely well-calculated subversion on Sekowsky's part, ends up as a crazier character than even Steranko ever managed, as we shall see.
Page 3 panel 5, page 4 panel 1: Ahem, as I was saying. This cad is bringing back not one but two intergalactic space-skanks to his private, luxe orbiting satellite! Then you turn the page and get an explanation for it which I imagine the editors thought was there to lend a modicum of decorum to the whole bit, but which, um, are you kidding me? This smooth silver fox has been hired by a rich daddy to chaperone his two spoiled party-girl daughters across the galaxy? Okay whatever, maybe forty years ago it actually didn't occur to some readers that there was sex going on in the background of this comic, but nowadays, please, and that backstory makes it so much worse! Look at how tall they are in comparison to him, look how unsteady on those high heels, look at what the girl in the black is wearing! These are two teenagers spending their vacation being tutored in the ancient arts of love by a violent, sexy old bachelor. Comics do not get much more inappropriate than Manhunter 2070.
Also, dig the colors on Starker's spaceship in the top panel -- nobody's credited for the job, this book being a product of the dark ages, but those visible brushstrokings and that violent contrast between the orange and blue were not at all common for the period. This is only one of many panels where it's obvious that the colorist was really going for it in a way that just didn't happen on the mainline Marvel/DC stuff at the time.
Page 6: All right, I'm about to get all Freudian, but this is just mind-boggling. Read it, man: these two nymphs in inexpertly applied, Colletta-girl makeup are trying to get Starker to stick around for, well, we can guess, but y'know, duty calls since this isn't that kind of comic. So they settle for a peck on the cheek and admiringly watch him speed off to adventure because he's just that rock hard all man. It's a scene that plenty of other comics from Caniff on down have used.
But I'm sorry, there is just some crazy fucking sexual subtext on this page. Sekowsky can't help but let a "big boob" flop out into the dialogue as this girl in a costume right out of Georges Pichard plants a big wet one on Starker, which is enough of a brush with pure masculinity to get her apparently basking in a warm, orgasmic afterglow in the next panel. As a giant penis shape protrudes from her face. And then look right and read some of the most hilariously loaded narration is comics history. I'll repeat it, it goes: "And the two girls watch STARKER ZOOM OFF into the VELVETY BLACKNESS." Emphasis mine. Dude, a guy named Starker who makes a habit of zooming off into velvety blacknesses? Coupled with that picture? What more could I add?
Page 10 panel 6: Okay, so he goes to collect the bounty on some bad guys, who are holed up on a planet where everything is viciously carnivorous. This is a picture of flying piranhas trying to eat through Starker's air bubble to get to his face's flesh. Which is cool n shit, but just look at the real meat in this panel, the intense punk/abstract art design of the composition. The staging of the previous panels makes it easy to tell what's going on here, but the near-total lack of any figurative elements, the exploding fury of the black shapes radiating outward from what we can just identify as a human head, the jagged overlapping, the fierce green background and the red raygun! This is way past pop art, we're approaching Gary Panter territory. Colletta's scratchy inks help out quite well here, too: when what's required is the opposite of slickness that guy is your man!
Page 11 panel 1: Another exploration of a similar theme, with the flying piranhas now being devoured by flying barracudas before they could get through Starker's spacesuit. This is a really incredible panel, Sekowsky's depth indicators flashing across the frame intermittently rather than resorting to the usual solid backdrop. Or at least here the solid backdrop is the figure itself, the ostensible focus of the panel, with the hero's face popped out in pink against an unforgiving blue field. The shadows of Starker's spacesuit, especially at the bottom, also deserve a mention, their shapes echoing the black shapes on the fish themselves, filling up the panel with what isn't actually there and adding greatly to the disorienting whirl. That half-a-face sliver of humanity right in the middle of the cyclone is phenomenal: he's really hiding, curled up in his armor, and Sekowsky brings the facial detail in a way he hasn't in previous panels to really nail down the acting, the unmoored feeling.
Page 13 panel 1: This is just a really interesting composition. Drawing's pretty good, I love the spotted blacks on those mountains, but what really impresses me is how much depth comes across when it's not actually there in the picture. For Starker in the background to be that big in comparison to the bad guys in the foreground he's gotta be crashing what, like less than fifty feet away. But Sekowsky makes it seem like a significant distance with everything he puts between the shot-down hero and the human villain closest to us: color masks over the two villains behind him, pushing them way back into the frame even though they're standing right next to him, and then a big wash of black that cuts the hero's figure off even further.
In comics, two depth fields behind the foreground is usually like trees, mountains, or building, city skyline -- miles and miles -- but here Sekowsky uses that convention to trick our eye into adding distance that isn't drawn in. He does it for the most utilitarian of reasons: he doesn't want to sacrifice the detail of Starker's fall to earth by drawing him as a tiny little dot against the sky, and beside that he's got a killer scene with some carnivorous rocks (yes) to squeeze in before the evildoers can catch up to the leading man. It's just fascinating how adroitly he achieves that, without even trying.
Page 15 panels 3-5, page 16 panels 1-2: This is such a great action sequence. It's very well-drawn, of course, with a wonderfully harmonious mix of claustrophobic linework, rich spotted blacks, and open colored space; but it's the staging, the blocking-out of the action and the body language that really makes it for me. It's totally relentless. First we get the slow, unusual slithering snake-like motion in the first panel, all tension and build, and then everything explodes out of the barrel of a raygun in one single static instant, a giant pop that's followed by another as the camera swings into a totally wild angle, the background falls to heavy-benday brown, the only motion in this frozen snapshot of a panel coming from the weirdness of the composition and the crunchy scuffle of marks around the villain's space-sled. After these two stamped-down quick hits we veer wildly into the extreme physicality and gesture of the next panel, with its contortionist body language, and the figure animation of the next, with the still camera recording an immediate reaction to the previous panel's action.
It's a disorienting flurry of techniques chopped up and employed with a masterful craft and attention to detail, about as far from the blazing impacts of Kirby or Adams as you can get, but the kinesis in the scene's staging, the roving, digging camera and the dead-on, solidified figurework sells it nonetheless. Excellent stuff.
Page 16 panels 6-8, page 17 panel 1: A super-creepy death scene that gets over almost entirely on suggestion. I'd imagine any modern artist would've been unable to resist the intensity of a full-on closeup of the cannibal ants swarming over Lester here's agonized face behind the plastic air bubble, slowly picking away the flesh as they went, but Sekowsky had to deal with the Comics Code and there was no way in hell he could have gotten away with that in 1970. What he improvises, though, with some key help from the colorist, is even nastier -- more suggestion than depiction, in the classic horror mode. The nauseatingly fleshlike color and texture of the grubs as they swarm into the spacesuit is unsettling enough, but the desperate, theatrical plight of the villain's figure as he runs away, dripping death-bugs and flanked by screams is truly horrible, and the camera's full 180-degree swing around him as his motion's cut off by death is a deftly considered bit of composition, as is the shrunken, skeletal form that can no longer fill up the spacesuit. Then, the money shot -- not a gory blood-mask but the white glint of a shadowed skull, picked as clean as the plastic shield surrounding it -- really pounds in how bad a number the ants did on this poor sap. (I'm actually kind of surprised this panel got through the censors... thank god it did!) The sudden blue sterility of that last panel after the hot pink and purple of the previous ones is another nice touch.
Page 17 panels 2-5: Another sweet bit of action, with Sekowsky again favoring a separated action/reaction approach instead of the more typical, robust figure interactions of Kirby or Ditko. The clean-ass right angle of the opposing forces in that top panel make its pop just terrific, and then Starker's graceful body language and the sudden starbursts of energy going off around him as he blasts back really sell the aerial, gravity-free setting of the battle. That third panel is pretty great, too, a nice chunk of totally comic book-abstract picture making.
Page 21 panels 2-4, page 22 panels 1-2: And here's another example of Sekowsky producing an interesting effect despite being forced away from the most logical path by the kids'-comics mores of his times. The panel we all want to see is Starker just burying that sword in the dragon-thing's eyeball, blood and vitreous humor spurting, beast howling, knuckles white. But again, in a DC comic of the time there's just no way. Instead of that indelible point-of-impact panel, which is what belongs in 22.1, we get something else: a near-repeat of the previous panel, layering more exposition, more wait, more tension onto the space between that massive, baleful eye and the sharpened sword-point. Look at those two panels -- it's the exact same moment drawn twice, the angle widened and ramped up in the second panel to really grip you before it...
Before it lets you go with a rather disappointing after-action panel to wind things up. It's anticlimactic because the times demanded it be, but Sekowsky's innovative cross-page panel-doubling really works the moment over nonetheless.
Page 23 panel 2: Really great, legitimately intriguing cliffhanger, an incredible rarity for its time. Even these days most genre books hook you for the next installment by foreshadowing some action face-off in the works, rather than a character revelation. Let alone the fact that -- even still! -- such character motivations are almost never revealed. Why does Hal Jordan fight crime as the Green Lantern? We, uh, haven't gotten to that issue yet, but Sekowsky's bound and determined to make his Manhunter a more interesting character than the average masked dope by his second book. This is another place where MH2070 really bears a resemblance to the early creator-owned action books: interest in who the heroes were as people was a big hallmark of '80s genre comics, but it was very sparse indeed before then, and this is a pretty special treat, considering.
Page 24 panel 5: Hang on, we're not done quite yet! Three additional pages follow the end of Starker's feature adventure, the first two of them constituting a quick-hit enslaved-by-aliens story. It's pretty nothing, most resembling those page-long Hostess cupcake ads, but it works as a way to introduce a formula to the Manhunter's adventures: here, as in the feature, Starker battles some alien creepazoids before hauling them in to the law for a nice bounty. It's also got this panel, which is a further display of Sekowsky's unusual flair for action. Concentrated entirely on the receiving end, with no figure interaction at all, it stands up thanks to Sekowsky's note-perfect posing, not to mention the almost photorealist shaping of the shadow on the floor. It's not much in terms of actual motion, more a thick block of solid weight positioned so precariously that we can't help but feel its instability.
Page 25 panel 4: Power Plus Purple is the street name for a particularly potent strain of marijuana grown in Oakland, and judging from this comic book I wouldn't be too surprised if Mike Sekowsky himself was in on that little tidbit too.
Page 26: The last page of the book is a full-page ad for the next issue, constructed in much the same white-backgrounded, borderless manner as the first. It's a great exercise in one-page storytelling all by itself -- Showcase got canceled with #93 and I wouldn't have been too surprised if Sekowsky wasn't sure his next comic would ever see the light of day, because he packs a whole issue worth of story into here. It's worth noting also that this isn't a house ad that ran in all the DC books -- this is Sekowsky consciously choosing to draw an ad on the last story page of his comic, which is pretty fascinating if you ask me. It's reminiscent of Brendan McCarthy's one-page ad "Pop!" (still the best comic that guy's done this century): aestheticaly unified with the rest of the issue, but using the form itself to point aggressively at the new, at what comes next. Like this whole thing, it's tied down into a present that didn't have much place for it, but it didn't shrink for a second from the future in which it would finally find a place.