Friday With the <i>Other</i> Guys

The best name for this I ever heard was coined by a Rolling Stone reviewer, years ago. He called it "Entwistle syndrome."

That would be the late John Entwistle, the original bass player for the Who.

In addition to being a fine bass player, John Entwistle was also a songwriter and producer and had released several solo records on his own. However, the Rolling Stone reviewer pointed out, as good as Entwistle's solo records might have been (I happen to think they were pretty good, especially Whistle Rymes) they were doomed to perpetual obscurity... because John Entwistle was a good songwriter who had the misfortune to be in the same band as a great one.

So. "Entwistle syndrome." Meaning, the good stuff that gets ignored because it's overshadowed by the great.

That came to mind this week when a couple of comics eBay wins arrived. I have been scrounging back issues of Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan, as some longtime readers may recall. And normally, when you think of "the good stuff" in Marvel's Conan books, you think of Roy Thomas and John Buscema and sometimes Barry Smith. You know, all that stuff Dark Horse puts out in those nice trade paperback Chronicles of Conan collections.

But what I've found, rooting through back issue bins and scooping up cheap eBay lots, is that a lot of other guys did good work on Conan at Marvel as well. I missed it the first time around -- when Roy Thomas left, I pretty much did too. The Michael Fleisher version of Savage Sword was not to my taste at all. Which meant that I missed the very fine work by Chuck Dixon that followed Fleisher.

Chuck Dixon wrote the majority of issues of Savage Sword between Fleisher's departure and Roy Thomas' return, and a lot of them got larded into the eBay lots I've picked up over the last year and a half or so. And you know what? I really rather like them. They're not anything like the Robert E. Howard Conan originals, or even the Roy Thomas Conan stories... those had a completely different pace and feel, there was an epic historical sweep to them. Dixon's Conan feels more like a terse spaghetti western: Clint Eastwood with a sword. But hey, if you like westerns -- and I do -- the Chuck Dixon Savage Sword is a lot of fun.

It surprised me to see the regular artist for most of this period was a fellow named Gary Kwapisz, who I remember as doing a lot of anti-Marvel, anti-Jim-Shooter political cartoons for the Comics Journal, once upon a time. Those cartoons were deadly accurate and often hilarious... but still, the Marvel editors lampooned in them that hired Kwapisz a couple of years later must have seen them. I wonder what that job interview must have been like.

Another win that came in this week was this Conan graphic novel from around the same period.

This I bought mostly for the art -- and, well, because it was really cheap -- and the work from John Severin is every bit as gorgeous as one would expect, there's a very Hal Foster-esque, Prince Valiant look to it. But the story's good too. Don Kraar did a fair number of Savage Sword tales in and around Chuck Dixon's, as well as various backup strips, and I enjoyed them all quite a bit too.

Don Kraar did another Conan graphic novel besides this one, The Witch Queen of Acheron, with art from the aforementioned Gary Kwapisz, and I think I may just have to add that to the shopping list too. Kraar eventually went on to take over the Tarzan newspaper strip in the 90's but that's the last mention of him I can find anywhere around the comics world. I don't know what he's been up to lately. I'd be interested. He has a knack for the kind of tough pulp adventure story I've always really enjoyed.

Also, my friend Benoit over on the CBR forums has spoken highly of Jim Owsley's tenure on the regular Marvel Conan the Barbarian title that came late in the run. Though I've seen very little of it myself, what I did see looked like good solid work as well.

But you never see any of these guys mentioned when comics folks talk about the good Conan stuff from Marvel. It's a safe bet that Dark Horse won't be giving any of their Conan work paperback collected editions any time soon. They are completely overshadowed by what Roy Thomas did. They got Entwistle'd.

I got to thinking about that, and it occurred to me that, hell, a LOT of comics I like have that problem, going back as far as I can remember.

Example: Who's the first creative team to come to mind when you think of the 1970's Batman? Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, right? And maybe Englehart and Rogers? It's only when you really stop and think --usually when you remember Man-Bat -- that you add, "Oh yeah, and Frank Robbins."

Truth to tell, a lot of my most fondly remembered 70's Bat-tales were from Frank Robbins.

Probably my favorite of his was one of the more obscure ones; "Batman for a Night!" It was a story riffing on George Plimpton's Paper Lion, about a Plimpton-like reporter who was doing a series of stories on what it was like to be a cop, be a fireman, etc, by taking over those roles for a day. The reporter persuades Batman to let him take over as Batman for a night, so he can really understand what it is Batman is trying to do, and Batman agrees, on the condition that Batman himself chaperone him on his patrol.

It sounds goofier than it was. It actually was a cool little story and there were some great moments in it. I'm always a sucker for those kind of "outsider-looking-in" takes on a continuing character. (Ed Brubaker did a similar sort of riff in Batman five or six years ago, a story about a couple of guerrilla filmmakers trying to document Batman's existence in a story called "The Dark Knight Project." I liked that one too.)

Frank Robbins brought a lot of good stuff to Batman and his world besides Man-Bat. He was the guy that actually introduced the leaner, meaner solo Batman and sent Robin off to college; he was the one that did the story where Commissioner Gordon found out his daughter was Batgirl; and he was the one that wrote the story that Julius Schwartz usually cited as the best Batman story ever, "The Batman Nobody Knows."

But the thing that I remember most is that Frank Robbins was the guy that made Robin cool. That was damn hard to do in the early 70's when we were all still a little embarrassed over Burt Ward and his Holy This and Holy That.

Speaking of Bat-talent that got overshadowed, Doug Moench is usually criminally overlooked when fans talk about great Batman runs of the 80's. Why? Because most of his first run with the original, non-jerk version of the Jason Todd Robin got wiped from continuity after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and after that he had the thankless job of doing the regular Bat-titles while everyone was obsessing over what Frank Miller was doing on Dark Knight. But the Doug Moench 80's Batman and Detective run is one of my very favorites. In addition to introducing Jason Todd as Robin, he also gave us Harvey Bullock, the Film Freak, and Black Mask, among others... and he was the first guy to take a swing at the Bruce-Wayne-as-unfit-parent idea, in the Nocturna/Thief of Night epic (and screw continuity, that story NEEDS to be collected, damn it.)

He was blessed with mostly great artists during this time, especially Gene Colan and the late Don Newton... but Pat Broderick, Paul Gulacy, and Tom Mandrake put in some nice work too. You never hear about the Doug Moench Batman, though, and it never gets reprinted anywhere; it's all Frank Miller, Frank Miller, Frank Miller, when anyone talks about Batman in the 80's. Total Entwistle. Same problem with Mike Barr and Batman: Year Two, come to think of it. Though that one is starting to get some respect.

Speaking of Frank Miller and the Entwistle syndrome, you know, the Marv Wolfman run on Daredevil a couple of years before Miller's was really quite good, too. It was Marv Wolfman that created the characters of Bullseye and Heather Glenn, who Miller later used to such great advantage.

Of course, Wolfman's run was also the one that had Daredevil teaming up with Uri Geller. You can't have everything.

Even so, I still think Marv Wolfman's run on Daredevil was a nice solid piece of superhero storytelling, especially when he was teamed with the great Bob Brown. I am anxiously awaiting the Essential Daredevil volumes that cover it... either this next one coming up, or the one after. I know they're getting close.

That era also was when Len Wein and John Buscema were doing a thoroughly entertaining run on The Mighty Thor that probably no one remembers but me, but I really enjoyed it. There's nothing radically innovative or anything, no Shocking New Direction. It's not Lee-Kirby, it's not Simonson, it's not even DeFalco-Frenz -- but it's a good Thor. That's another Essential volume I wish they'd hurry up and get to in the rotation. I'm afraid there's a ways yet to go on that one though... I think the Thor Essentials are only up to volume three, still doing the Kirby years.

Sci-Fi's new Flash Gordon TV show is premiering in a few hours, as I write this. Which reminds me, you know who gets Entwistle'd all the damn time? Dan Jurgens.

Hardly anyone thinks of him when they think of, say, Flash Gordon, or Superman, or the Teen Titans... but truthfully there was a lot to like about his brief revival of the Titans book between the more famous Marv Wolfman series and the morose current one.

Again, not GREAT comics, but solidly good ones. Likewise, his DC Flash Gordon revival probably seemed like blasphemy to most -- and certainly, it's not Alex Raymond -- but I think if it came out today, people might give it a bit more of a chance. It was a nice little mini-series. You could probably find it in a quarter box somewhere and it's worth checking out.

The victims of the worst case of Entwistle syndrome I can think of in comics, though, would have to be Martin Pasko and Tom Yeates. Those guys just plain got robbed.

When DC revived Swamp Thing in the 80's, it was done mostly because of that crappy movie with Adrienne Barbeau and Louis Jourdan. Nevertheless, Martin Pasko and Tom Yeates did a really terrific job with the new Saga of the Swamp Thing, setting up all kinds of things that would echo throughout the DC universe for some time afterwards, particularly the villainy of the Sunderland Corporation. Good stuff, well-executed, and honestly? I prefer it to the Wein-Wrightson original most of the time. I was sad to see them go, though this new artist Bissette looked promising. The new writer, I'd never heard of. Some British guy.

Of course, the Brit was Alan Moore and with "The Anatomy Lesson" in #21 it was clear that this wasn't your father's DC any more. It was THE buzz book of the early 80's. And rightfully so. Alan Moore's Swamp Thing was brilliant.

But... doggone it...

...Pasko's and Yeates' was pretty good, too. Just so you know.

I could go on and on. There are lots of other examples. You probably could come up with a list of your own.

The thing is, we comics fans tend to get excited when something great comes along, because we see so much crap. And certainly the great books out there deserve the accolades.

All I'm saying is, don't let the great stuff blind you to the good stuff. The Entwistles in comics deserve a little attention too.

See you next week.

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