Tom Scioli Part 1 - He-Men and New Gods

Tom Scioli is slated to have a big 2012. With the last two issues of his and Joe Casey's "GODLAND" slated to hit the stands later this year, and with a collected edition of the Scioi-written-and-drawn "American Barbarian" coming out from AdHouse sometime in the next few months, Tom is poised to blast comic shops with his explosive imagery and Kirby-esque designs.

I wanted to find out, from Tom, what was going into his 2012 work, and we'll get to those kinds of questions and answers next week. First, we talked about the comics that inspired him, and took a close look at one particularly influential Jack Kirby issue that still resonates today.

Tim Callahan: Okay Tom, we're going to talk about Jack Kirby soon enough, but let's not start there. Let's start with something formative outside of Kirby. Tell me about a comic or two that had an impact from you at a young age. What were some of your keystone comics?

Tom Scioli: "The Vengeance of Skeletor" and "King of Castle Greyskull," both minicomics packaged with He-Man figures, with beautiful art by Alfredo Alcala.  "Vengeance of Skeletor" was the more evocative of the two, with a really scary/psychedelic jungle and a sea monster in a bottomless lake. The imagery of "King of Castle Greyskull" didn't stick with me as much, but it was probably the more influential of the two, just in that I'd re-enact variations on its story when I'd play with my toys.

I remember those comics! I don't have mine any more, but that was one of my early exposures to comics, now that you mention it. Certainly my first exposure to Alfredo Alcala. I remember buying the follow-up miniseries from DC, along with the "DC Comics Presents" team-up between He-Man and Superman, but those weren't as good as the minicomics packaged with the toys, from what I recall. And since, in my childhood head, the Masters of the Universe saga was kind of like a high-fantasy/supernatural Conan epic (though I wouldn't have known Conan yet), I was hugely disappointed when the Filmation cartoon came out, with Orko hamming it up. Orko was not in the Alcala comics, for sure.

Did those Masters of the Universe comics lead into other comics for you? Or were they kind of isolated examples from that time in your life? Let me know the journey from those minicomics to your commitment to comics as an art form.

I wonder if there are a lot of people our age who had that identical experience. I loved the fantasy of those early minicomics. I didn't like when they moved into a more comic-book direction, with ones like "The Ordeal of Man-E-Faces." When the Filmation cartoon came out, I hated it. I watched every episode, but I hated it. He-Man got domesticated. He was an enigmatic wanderer of the plains before. Now he had a mom and dad and a secret identity and comic relief. Beast Man and Skeletor were scary, in the cartoon they were buffoonish. I've later found out that those early minicomics were great because there wasn't a mythology set up yet. The writers could just do whatever they wanted. Once they set about deliberately crafting a bible that's when all those trite pre-fabricated elements started coming in.

Those were my earliest exposure to comics, and they were ones that stuck with me. I'd buy A "Star Wars" comic here and there, or Superman. But it was out of a fandom to "Star Wars" or Superman, not to comics. I didn't have an older sibling or a parent who was into comics and gave me their old collection. Comics were something other kids were into, but not me. It wasn't until the late 80s, the post-Dark Knight period when comic stores started showing up, that I started checking out this thing called comics. That's where I got my first Kirby comics. I wanted to check out "old" comics and the two Kirby comics I grabbed looked suitably old.

If there's a thread from those He-Man minicomics to my comics career, it's a path of following the things that hit those same notes. It started out as more of a genre thing than a comics thing. It went like this: "Star Wars" -- Thundarr -- He-Man -- Thor -- Dune -- Nexus -- Seven Samurai -- Ronin -- New Gods -- making my own comics. That's my personal chronology. For me, Kirby's "Thor" is linked to the 80s, "New Gods" is the 90s, because that's how I encountered them.

When you took those early-for-you trips into your first direct market stores, what made you want to even seek out older comics instead of the shiny new ones on the shelf? Was it a function of the type of stories you visited -- I know in my case, the store I used to frequent was a used book store loaded with piles of old magazines and comics, so the older stuff was emphasized -- or was it just some historical interest on your part, or what?

I really don't know. There were pricey Marvel Masterworks volumes with their devotional book design. There was the idea that old comics were valuable. There was a mystique surrounding old comics. Another comic that was formative for me was "Superman from the Thirties to the Seventies." It was the only comic you could get out of the library, so I checked it out over and over. Talking about it now, it seems like the pull of old comics would be really strong. That would be the most obvious thing that comics stores had to offer that 7-11 didn't.

Of course I bought my share of new comics, too. The "new" comics I was drawn to, as it turned out, were also old comics. "Classic X-Men," which reprinted the Claremont-Cockrum-Byrne years was one of my favorite comics. I had no idea that these were old stories. Also "Marvel Tales," which was the Spider-Man reprint book, was another favorite, which was reprinting Claremont/Byrne Spider-Man stories at the time I was buying it.

From what I've seen of your online presence, you are somewhat of a comics historian, or at least you have a strong interest in the aesthetic history of the medium, specifically around superhero comics. Is that a fair observation to make? And now that you're looking back on some of those stories that were formative influences on you, what do you think of them, from an aesthetic history perspective? Is there stuff that you wish you had seen earlier? Stuff you didn't like then, but really appreciate now, or vice-versa?

Definitely. Everybody I know who makes comics seems to be very well-educated in the history of the comics traditions they are working in.

Sometimes I wish I would've read more Kirby as a kid, but I think I was better off that I didn't get to read most of it until I was older. I think I needed Kirby more in adulthood than I did in childhood.

The stuff I liked as a kid for the most part holds up, but that's probably because it helped form the baseline of my likes and dislikes. I recently read a bunch of those He-Man minicomics, and the Alcala ones are still the gold standard. The Bruce Timm ones are pretty neat, too. I liked Ditko's Spider-Man a lot, and I still do. I think I only had a couple of Ditko reprints, but I wish I'd had more. I think they felt contemporary because the 60s Spider-Man cartoon was still in regular rotation at the time. That's what Spider-man looked like. It didn't feel like something from another era. A kid in the early eighties consumed a lot of sixties and seventies culture. The Beverly Hillbillies, H.R. Pufnstuff, The Brady Bunch -- these were part of the eternal present.

I didn't like the Spider-man comics that were new at the time I was reading them. It was the post-Watchmen era, and Spider-Man was too dark for me. It was the era of "Kraven's Last Hunt." People talk about how great that comic is, but I don't know that I'll ever be able to see it that way because it wasn't what my 10-year-old self was looking for from a Spider-Man comic.

The Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne X-Men are still an enjoyable read and are nice-looking comics. I read a lot of Batman comics leading up to the Michael Keaton movie.  I bought "Death in the Family" as it came out. For all their grimness, those comics were too sedate, too tame. I would've liked a little more silver age bombast, but I wouldn't have known to call it that. I still really like Jim Aparo's Batman art from that era.

I guess something I really liked back then was the switch from newsprint, to the heavier white paper, with the higher resolution, more saturated color printing. I hated the feel of newsprint and welcomed the change. Now I feel the opposite way. Newsprint comics seem to have a more pleasing, more unified aesthetic.

I didn't even realize Bruce Timm worked on any Masters of the Universe comics. Which ones did he do? What were they about?
He drew "King of the Snake Men." It reads really well and has a few signature Timm-isms. "Grizzlor, the Legend Comes Alive" is not quite as good, but still pretty lively. Then there were a couple that he just inked, which were pretty good: "Escape from the Slime Pit" and "The Powers of Grayskull."

I guess we should probably just move beyond listing which comics we liked and didn't like, growing up -- for the record, I thought the cover to "Elektra: Assassin" #1 was so silly I refused to buy it when it came out, and I thought Kirby was pretty terrible because all I knew him from back then were the covers to the "Super Powers" comics -- and really get into what's important: namely, Jack Kirby's best work. I'm certainly partial to 1970s Kirby, and though I appreciate his work in the early Silver Age, it's "New Gods" and "O.M.A.C." and "Kamandi" and even "The Eternals" and "Devil Dinosaur" that really get me excited about his comics. Those comics, in fading newsprint or in glossy hardcover collections, are still the things that I look to when I need to recharge and remind myself why comics are such an amazingly powerful visual form.

Because you're an artist, and an aesthetic historian, and a Kirby man to the core, it might be beneficial for us to focus our Kirby discussion a bit by talking about a single story or a single issue and really go through it and talk about Kirby's work through that lens. What do you say? What's a Kirby comic that you'd like to really hone in on? What's the good stuff in that comic?

It would be issue #7 of "New Gods," entitled "The Pact." That's the comic that really hit me hard and made Kirby jump to number one for me. It was "Star Wars" and He-Man and Thundarr and Dark Knight Returns and Hellboy all rolled into one, but 100 times better.

Just reading that opening caption on page 1, it feels like the bible, it feels like the opening crawl of "Star Wars." I'll never know what it's like reading the New Gods without knowing "Star Wars." When I read it, it feels like "Star Wars," but that's because I've seen "Star Wars," so I know how to assemble these words and images in my head. What did readers in the 70s think when these books came out? Did it make any sense to them? Is that why the books weren't a massive hit, because you had to watch a movie that didn't exist yet in order to fully appreciate them?
I love how Kirby uses two exclamation marks for every sentence, until he needs to up the ante and go with three exclamation marks for emphasis!!!

I understand the "Star Wars" connection, because the mythology has a similarity and, of course, I also don't know what it's like to read this stuff without having "Star Wars" in mind and yet...this doesn't feel much like the aesthetics of "Star Wars." This feels muscular, even on the opening, tranquil page in a way "Star Wars" doesn't. "Star Wars" feels like Alex Raymond to me, with its thin heroes and their swashbuckling ways. This opening page of "The Pact," and the scene that follows, feels like a rhino in a china shop. Kirby is bursting at the seams. The panels can barely contain his bulky forms and energetic lines.

There is a precursor to this early-New Genesis stuff -- at least in terms of its setting -- in the "Tales of Asgard" work Kirby did in the back of "Thor." But this is a level up from that, right? It's got an intensity that even those mythic stories didn't have.

I've read so many Kirby comics, the exclamation points are invisible to me. I grew up with the Odyssey 2, not the Atari. I don't know if you've read any of the instruction booklets from it, but it's all exclamation points.

It gets more Star Warsy as it goes on. Funny you should mention Raymond, because to me this is Kirby doing full-on Raymond. Look at that first year of "Flash Gordon." Before the art got too pretty. "New Gods" is Kirby going back to his Raymond roots. Steppenwolf's design is Prince Barin. Heggra is Darkseid's mother. I wouldn't be surprised if Ming were his father. The Royer inking throws you off the Raymond trail, but look at the pencils. Kirby's pencil lines look like Raymond's brushstrokes.

Also, "Star Wars" was pre-steroid era moviemaking. You couldn't find an actor who was built like a Kirby character. If it came out in the mid-80s the characters would've probably been played by more Kirby-esque actors.

I'd read enough Thor comics that I got that Balduur and the unnamed Sorceress could be Balder and Karnilla. Although I pictured them as the stone-like megagods that Metron ran into in the opening pages of "New Gods" #5. I wasn't certain of the Thor connection, although it seems like the consensus is that's what Kirby intended. The references to the "Old Gods" in this issue sound mysterious, Lovecraftian.

There's swashbuckling here, but it's Vietnam-era anti-war swashbuckling.

This portrayal of Darkseid is an interesting one, because he looks just like full-fledged, ominously evil, nearly omnipotent Darkseid, but he doesn't seem to have a lot of power here, in these early days. He appears first with a robotic hand -- a "Killing Glove" built by his pal DeSaad, and his uncle Steppenwolf gives him grief about his "bizarre companions. Darkseid still has the arrogance we know and love, but this is the eager, ambitious young Darkseid, who later talks about how he's into new technology and he has the foresight to see where the culture is heading.

"We must seek NEW roads to tread!!" he declares to his uncle.

Meanwhile, in that earlier scene, Kirby throws in that tiny character bit where a steward, ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE, is refilling Steppenwolf's horn flask while the uncle gives Darkseid grief.

It's not all wall-to-wall bombast, which is what many readers seem to forget.

NEXT WEEK: The Kirby wrap-up, "The Myth of 8-Opus," the end of "GODLAND," and More!

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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