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Happy Mark Evanier Day!

by  in Comic News Comment
Happy Mark Evanier Day!

The Bill Finger Award recipients were just announced for this year: Elliott Maggin and Richard Hughes. Both very worthy, no question. And both writers who have been largely and unfairly overlooked for an amazing body of work, which is the point of the award. Let me just say right up front that I do not for a moment suggest that there is any reason these two, or in fact any recipient of this award, shouldn’t be getting it.

Nevertheless, there’s a guy who deserves one of his own, and he probably never will get it… because he’s one of the folks who administrates the Finger Award and I suspect he’s too modest to accept one, plus it would look like a fix. Which is a shame.

But it’s typical. Mark Evanier spends so much time making sure we appreciate other great talents in comics, and is such a faithful historian and archivist of other people’s comics and animation work, that I think we forget how much amazing work he does himself.

So when I conceived of doing this irregular series of columns appreciating comics creators who never seem to get the fan affection they are due, Evanier’s name was one of the first ones that popped into my head. It’s impossible to come up with any kind of comprehensive overview of his work because he’s done everything. Comics, prose, TV– both live-action and animation– and in between all that he is one of the most tireless bloggers on the internet and has been since 2000.

Most comics fans know him for his work with Sergio Aragones on Groo, or from his work on the animated adventures of Garfield the cat… or, quite possibly from his hosting a zillion panels or so every year at the San Diego Comic-Con and its sister event Wondercon.

When I got my start here at CBR as one of Jonah’s SDCC convention stringers, one of the perks of the job was that I was paid to write up the various panels Evanier hosted interviewing the Golden and Silver Age greats. And certainly, his contributions to the scholarship of comics history are among the best available, worthy additions to any fan’s library.

There are also three collections of his essays culled from his blog and other sources, available from TwoMorrows.

And though I daresay most of you are familiar with his collaboration with Sergio Aragones on Groo, I wonder how many of you remember Fanboy, a DC mini-series about the Walter Mitty-like fantasies of a nerdy comic-shop clerk that had a stellar lineup of guest artists drawing the hapless hero’s fantasy sequences.

I think I bought about a dozen copies of that series because I kept giving the individual issues away to one or another of my Cartooning students, all of whom adored it.

But it’s his contributions to adventure comics that I think are the most unfairly overlooked. There’s the Space Ghost story he did with that character’s creator, Alex Toth himself, when Evanier was writing so many of the Hanna-Barbera licensed comics.

There are his amazing collaborations with Steve Rude, on both Mister Miracle and –again– Space Ghost (this time for Comico.)

Evanier was also the instigator and chief architect of the 12-part DC Challenge maxiseries, a wonderful and unfairly-overlooked romp of a round-robin crossover that came out in the 1980s.

The DC Challenge was a throwback to the kind of cool stunt you used to see in genre pulp magazines– one writer starts a story, ends it on a cliffhanger, and dares the next writer to come up with the solution. Who in turn has to come up with his own cliffhanger for the writer in line after, and so on. The story itself was, in fairness, kind of a demented hot mess and probably would never be allowed to happen today– but it was FUN.

Evanier also had a terrific run on Blackhawk with Dan Spiegle that, as far as I’m concerned, is probably the best job anyone’s ever done on that character.

All of the joyous adventure of the original, but without the attendant racism, and with the advantage of historical hindsight. It was just straight-up good comics.

But far and away my favorite Mark Evanier comics are the ones he did at Eclipse. I first became aware of them in a very odd way– I got interested after reading a couple of interviews he did with The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes.

The interviews made the books sound interesting, especially Crossfire. I got in on it just as it had gone to a cool new black-and-white look.

This was done as a cost-cutting measure but as it happened it served the book really well; it gave it a great noir vibe, and I was hooked. Dan Spiegle did some really amazing art and the whole enterprise had a sort of scruffy private-eye feel that was reminiscent of the great old mystery pulps of the forties, but with a modern sense of humor. Crossfire was ostensibly a superhero comic but it felt more like The Rockford Files; even though Hollywood bailbondsman Jay Endicott had adopted the masked identiity of Crossfire to fight crime, really the book was much more about his weird and quirky clientele. That also was much better suited to artist Dan Spiegle’s strengths, though he was no slouch when it came to the action.

I was instantly a fan and sought out all the back issues, as well as the parent title, DNAgents, that Crossfire had spun out of. There was also a mini-series, Crossfire and Rainbow, that was more or less the wrapup to DNAgents.

But really it was the street-level heroics of Crossfire that I loved best, and the book was strongest when it stayed away from the spandex stuff. There was also Whodunnit? a short-lived stunt comic where you had to guess the identity of the killer, and the winning guess got a cash prize. Naturally this also starred Jay Endicott and though I never got anywhere close to a successful guess at the solution, I still enjoyed it.

It’s a damn shame that these comics have never gotten proper paperback collections. There’s a single volume of Crossfire out there, I think, but I suspect it only has the first six or eight issues, and it’s the later ones where Jay abandoned his skintight suit and just went with the mask and turtleneck that the book really hit its stride.

That’s my feeling, anyway. There’s also a couple of DNAgents collections out there. Either one certainly worth picking up if you see them.

I still have my complete run of Crossfire here, and whenever I go through the collection to cull the herd it’s among the first boxes to be shoved over into the never-sell pile. So I don’t need the paperback collection myself. I just think it’s criminal it’s not available to more readers today. It was only a 26-issue run, plus four issues of Crossfire and Rainbow and the three issues of Whodunnit. I’d be all over a four or five-volume set collecting those just to give as gifts.

Evanier and Spiegle also did a sort of spiritual sequel to Crossfire for Epic Comics, Hollywood Superstars.

It was about a small detective agency in Hollywood that often ran into the dark side of showbiz; it had that same sort of bruised optimism Evanier brought to Crossfire, and there were little Easter eggs here and there that let readers know it was definitely set in the same milieu. (“Same universe” seems a little grand for the world these underdog characters inhabit.) That one only ran five issues but it did get a nice little paperback collection a couple of years ago.

This all is just barely scratching the surface. Mark Evanier has written thousands of good comics over the last four decades; I didn’t even get around to all the great stuff he did at Western, or his revival of the Challengers of the Unknown, or a dozen others. But it’s a start.

At any rate, I thought that the chief appreciator of unfairly-overlooked comics talents deserved a little appreciation himself, and it’s been fun for me to revisit these comics, writing this. If you haven’t discovered them yet, I recommend them unreservedly. Trust me, you’re in for a treat.

See you next week.

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