It must be Friday, because here I am again. Actually, as I write this, it’s Thursday evening late. But my wife has informed me that tomorrow evening is earmarked for Christm– excuse me, HOLIDAY shopping, and Julie indulges me in so many other areas I must concede this one to her. So I’m writing Friday’s column tonight.
One of the things my bride has been indulging me in lately is my scavenging on eBay. My big thing for the last few months has been getting old stuff from Marvel’s black-and-white line: Savage Sword of Conan, mostly, but also Doc Savage, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, Planet of the Apes, Rampaging Hulk, and Marvel Preview. I went on a bit of a binge about a month ago (well, around here a ‘binge’ is about twenty-five dollars; what I mean is that I won three or four auctions in a row and dropped about $25) and the packages are finally showing up. I am wallowing in all this 70’s monochromatic goodness and wondering, when I surface long enough to remember what year it is, why this kind of comics package died out so suddenly. Because, damn, these books were GREAT.
Take this one, for instance.
Savage Tales #3, cover-dated Feburary 1974. Retailed for seventy-five cents — and remember this was during the time that comics were flailing around trying to find a price and format and camp on it, so maybe your regular DC books were 20 cents, maybe they were 25, maybe even suddenly 60 cents (and eighty percent reprint.) Marvel was hanging in there at 20 cents a book but also experimenting with quarterly giant-size partial reprint books at 50 cents, stuff like that. But in 1974, if you’re a hardcore comics fan, you figure you’re giving up, at worst, three of your regular books to get this.
In return, you got not just a big comic book — you got a MAGAZINE. Let’s walk through what filled the pages.
First up, chapter two of “Red Nails” by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith. Now, I know everybody raves about them now, and “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar” won an award or something, but I was there and I’m telling you that most of Barry Smith’s Conan color comics work was crap. That book succeeded on the writing. (Judging from what he proved capable of later, Smith probably would agree with this, so I don’t feel like I’m being too mean.) But here, in Savage Tales, with a chance to really refine his line work and design for black-and-white, Smith finally came into his own. Even his habit of making the faces too narrow and setting the eyes too high doesn’t grate here the way it usually does, it works somehow. And the story — well, it’s a classic, it’s Robert E. Howard doing his clean-limbed savage vs. decadent dying civilization thing, and you either like it or you don’t. Thomas does a nice job of adaptation. And that takes us to page 29.
Then we get “An Age Undreamed Of,” the kind of behind-the-scenes-at-Marvel article we used to really enjoy and made at least half of us want to work in comics some day, with Roy Thomas cheerfully explaining why Savage Tales was going to be around for a while after all. This came with a full-page Smith pin-up.
This was followed by a stunning two-page spread by Esteban Maroto, of Red Sonja in battle with a horde of weird wizard types — one, I swear, looks like Walter Brennan if Brennan had long hair and bat wings. But it’s all gorgeously, intricately detailed and somehow conveys a real sense of romance and wonder.
Then we get a prose fiction piece, “The Crimson Bell” by Ray Capella, with illustrations by Al Williamson and Frank Brunner. Some look like pen sketches, others like gray watercolor wash, but they are stunning. The story… well, again, it’s pulpy sword and sorcery stuff, featuring a guy named Arquel of Argos. Fun fluff.
Then we get Stan Lee and John Romita Sr., with “The Fury of the Femizons.” Romita’s always reliable but here his work was just staggeringly good, it seems like he’s really digging the chance to try out the gray-wash technique. The story is typical Stan Lee melodrama, amped up with 70’s-era “relevance” — a female-dominated future society where men are kept as pets and sex toys, and one rebel woman dares risk all for True Love, for a man who is… DIFFERENT from the OTHERS…. was there REALLY once a time where all men were like him? A time of LOVE and VALOR??…–and so on. That kind of thing. But the art sure is gorgeous.
Then another article from Roy, this one a historical overview of the different illustrators that had interpreted Conan the barbarian in his Weird Tales, pulp-magazine days. This is followed by a puff piece from Jim Steranko pushing HIS barbarian project, “Talon,” with a nice illo of the character (did that book ever actually come out? I don’t think it did) one-page bios of Roy Thomas and Barry Smith — yeah, okay, but we ate that up in the 70’s, we really thought the Marvel Bullpen was a magical wonderland back then.
And then the conclusion to “Red Nails,” more Thomas and Smith barbarian wonderfulness, which takes us to page 71; another pin-up from Smith, a couple of house ads, and that’s it.
Put aside for one moment the amazing array of talent involved — although that is worthy of comment, as well, these guys were all working at damn near the top of their game and their sheer exuberance is contagious — but never mind that, take a moment and just look at the design of the thing. Two comics stories (one double-length) several articles, a plethora of illustrations and pin-ups, and a prose fiction piece. Now that’s a hell of a package. And check the price — 75 cents, about a penny a page. How many pages are you getting for your $2.95 these days, kids?
See, that’s the great thing about the black-and-white line Marvel had going back then. It wasn’t just the talent. It was the design of the package. Here’s another example.
This one isn’t as front-loaded with talent, though I like it quite a bit. Cover-dated July 1976, this one would have set you back a whole dollar for 64 pages. Not as much bang for your buck as the previous example but still, I think that’s fair value considering the contents.
Open it up and there’s an amazing pen-and-ink drawing of Bruce Lee by a promising newcomer named Marshall Rogers. Then the lead feature, “Sons of the Tiger: White Tiger!” by Bill Mantlo and Jim Sherman on pencils (filling in for that other promising newcomer, George Perez.) Mantlo got a lot of crap from fans during his career, because he was the designated Marvel pinch-hitter and wrote a lot of single-issue, fill-in, fluff stuff on the superhero books. But there were a few strips where he got to shine and “Sons of the Tiger” was one of them. This was an intricate serial that ran for, I think, most all the run of the book, and it was a lot of fun. Before Jim Rhodes ever subbed for Iron Man or USAgent filled in for Captain America, reluctant kung fu superguy Hector Ayala spent a year or so covering for the disbanded Sons of the Tiger as the White Tiger: in this issue, he’s trying to break up some kind of drug smuggling ninja operation on the Manhattan docks while he tries to explain to his bitchy sister that he’s a superhero now. Meanwhile, the Tiger Sons themselves were scattered over the globe trying to deal with their own various traumas — Abe Brown’s about to get shoved into a snake pit in the Sahara, Bob Diamond’s lost and starving in the Canadian wilderness, while back in New York, Lin Sun and Lotus are trying to come to terms with their newfound love while coping with the tragedy of their missing comrades…it’s the kind of palpitating super-melodrama Marvel made its rep on. But it all looks really COOL, because it’s in that great black-and-white format with the gritty gray wash inking. Like a deranged noir movie about costumed guys having kung fu fights.
Then we get TWO interviews. A mildly entertaining one with a kid named Alex Kwon that was about to be “the next Bruce Lee” (Here in 2005, I’m thinking that probably didn’t work out for him, but his optimism is quaintly endearing) and a really fascinating one with martial arts exploitation-film director Robert Clouse. It may not be your thing, but I’m almost as big a genre movie nerd as I am a comics nerd, and I LOVE that shit.
This is followed by the second comics feature story, part 2 of the 4-part “Swordquest,” a tale of a medieval Korean warrior named Kwang-Che-Yu trying to get revenge on a Japanese feudal lord known only as “The Raven,” and getting caught up in all sorts of intrigue as the war between Japan and China heats up. Written with great verve and surprising depth by John Warner, art by Tony deZuniga (who was really the MVP of the Marvel black-and-white line back then, he and the Tribe were everywhere, from Doc Savage to Savage Sword to Dracula Lives! and his style fit the format like a glove.)
Now, this one’s more of a typical offering, not so star-studded a lineup as Savage Tales… but the same enthusiasm permeates the thing. The same diversity, the sense you get as a reader that this is a dollar well-spent. I bought this one off the stands back in 1976, and I’m telling you, it took my 14-year-old self most of a weekend to get through it. It was a real READ, you know what I’m saying? Because not only were Marvel’s black-and-white magazines jammed full of extra features, but the style of comics back then was such that most of the pages were six or eight-panel grids, with a fair amount of wordage. And the magazine format let them pull it off, they were designed for a bigger page. It took a hell of a lot longer to read one of these books than this decompressed, written-for-the-trade crap I’m seeing on the stands today for three times the price.
Now, I don’t want to be the Designated Grumpy Old Man here, bitching about how the good old days are gone forever and all this newfangled stuff can’t hold a candle to what we had back then. But damn it, these were good comics, which is what we’re about here; but more to the point, this was a good comics PACKAGE. It’s a great way to PRESENT comics. Two related-but-different feature-length stories, articles that would be of interest to fans of either, an informal editorial intro, pin-ups and page illos scattered throughout. Printing black-ink-only is ridiculously cheap compared to full-color, and you could set up all the gray-tone stuff in Photoshop now for God’s sake, there’d be nothing to it. And when you work WITH the black-and-white limitations, design FOR it, you can get some really great-looking stuff. Marvel did it a lot. And though I was talking about Marvel here, Jim Warren had a whole company predicated on it. Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, Rook, all that stuff.
This was a great format. So why is it gone? Somebody should try it again. Especially since it’s been gone so long it’d probably be hailed as revolutionary, especially if you could get it out of the comics shops and into stores where actual magazines live. Hell, I’d try it if I had the money to finance it. But I’d be happy if someone would give it a shot just so I could have some more to read. The trouble with eBaying for back issues (as entertaining and addictive as that can be in itself) is that it’s got a finite end: sooner or later, you get them all.
I’ve probably got a few months left of stalking the elusive Marvel black-and-whites on eBay and at shows. But it sure would rock my world if, in the meantime, some enterprising publisher gave the format another shot so we could have more of them.
See you next week.
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