RIP Bert Jansch

If “Black Waterside” sounds familiar, it may be due to the fact that Jimmy Page brazenly “re-imagined” the song as “Black Mountain Side” on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut LP.

This is less an indictment of Page – an infamous plagiarist of folk and blues songs – than an acknowledgement of Bert Jansch’s (1943-2011) far-reaching influence, a guitarist of such renown that Neil Young once referred to the Scottish legend as the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix.

Jansch’s reputation among his fellow musicians was first established with the guitarist’s self-titled 1965 debut, which was seen at the time as an incredibly bold new direction for British folk music. Richie Unterberger wrote on AllMusic that Jansch recorded the album on a portable tape recorder with a borrowed guitar in the kitchen of his London flat.

Despite such humble origins, the album’s use of stark, original material combined with Jansch’s virtuoso guitar and plainspoken singing voice made an immediate impression on the British folk scene. The guitarist’s reputation was further enhanced by such releases as It Don’t Bother Me and Jack Orion.

(British pop troubadour Donovan even dedicated two songs to Jansch: “Bert’s Blues” and “House of Jansch.”)

In 1967-68, Jansch formed the genre-busting Pentangle with fellow guitarist John Renbourn, vocalist Jacqui McShee, bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox. The band often performed folk standards infused with a jazz swing able to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Charles Mingus.

“Light Flight” from Basket Of Light even hit the British pop charts.

On the whole, Jansch’s commercial fortunes never quite equalled his critical standing. Plagued by alcoholism, he disappeared for a time but re-emerged in the 1990s and continued to work until his death at the age of 67.

My deepest condolences to his family, friends and many fans.

Gene Colan: 1926-2011

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Gene Colan, one of the true giants of the comic-book industry, passed away June 23 from complications of liver disease. He was 84.

Colan was one of the few artists – along with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko – whose work I actively sought out as a youthful collector. His mastery of mood -  primarily through a skillful deployment of photographic imagery and shadows – made Colan’s comics seem so much more sophisticated than the standard fare of the time.

His work on Howard The Duck, Tomb Of Dracula and Daredevil are definitive. Colan’s version of Doctor Strange and Batman rank among the very best. How many other artists can stake such a claim?

Mark Evanier has posted an excellent obituary on his site. The best tribute I can offer is an example of Colan’s work itself.

The following story has garnered some attention over the years for its use of The Beatles. The real attraction, in my eyes, is Colan’s typically gorgeous art. Not only does he do fine caricatures of The Fab Four and other contemporary celebrities, but the great artist also ably conveys the protagonist’s excessive fantasy life – and the resulting soap-operatic anguish – with seemingly minimal effort.

From Girls’ Romances #109, DC Comics (June, 1965), here’s “When My Dreams Come True!”

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Dwayne McDuffie (1962-2011)

Comics professionals and fans expressed grief yesterday over  the untimely death of Dwayne McDuffie, who just turned 49 on Feb. 20.

Although I had never met McDuffie in person or online, like many super-hero enthusiasts I immensely enjoyed his contributions to DC’s animated offerings. His work on the Justice League cartoons and DVDs (including the recent and excellent Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths) was far more entertaining and compelling than the majority of titles published by the Big Two in the past several years.

Despite my fondness for his work in animation, however, I  believe McDuffie’s true legacy can be found in the creator-owned Milestone line of comic-books published by DC in the 1990s.

Founded by McDuffie with Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle and Michael Davis, Milestone sought to make comics multicultural through the introduction of such characters as Static, Hardware, Icon and the Blood Syndicate. Each of  Milestone’s original four titles – co-created by McDuffie – possessed a sense of relevance and vitality that I hadn’t experienced in mainstream comics since the classic Lee-Kirby-Ditko Marvels of the 1960s.

Milestone presented a truly original spin on super-heroes and it was a shame the line only lasted a few years. At least a generation of children discovered the greatness of Static through the cartoon series.

As a side note, I can’t help but notice that McDuffie’s 49th birthday fell about three weeks before mine. It’s a sobering reminder to a middle-aged fanboy like myself of just how fragile life can be …

The panel at the top of the page is taken from Static #1 (DC, 1993). The story was written by McDuffie and Robert Washington III and drawn by John Paul Leon and Steve Mitchell.

Mike Esposito, RIP

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I was very sad to hear of Mike Esposito’s passing over the weekend. His run on Amazing Spider-Man with best friend and frequent collaborator Ross Andru defined Marvel’s Web-Head during my youth and I later discovered the pair’s top-notch work on such DC perennials as Metal Men, Our Army At War, and Wonder Woman.

Esposito began working in the comics field after World War II and contributed to titles published by Timely, Fox and Fiction House. He and Andru then briefly formed their own publishing company, Mikeross, which published the Mad Comics-inspired Get Lost.

Although the publishing venture didn’t work out, Andru and Esposito remained a vital team for several decades and produced memorable tales for just about every company under the sun.

As a small tribute to Esposito (and Andru), today’s Pre-Code horror story is illustrated by the legendary art team. “Insane,” a tale that deals more with human nature than the supernatural, originally appeared in Mysterious Adventures #22 (Story, 1954).

Jerry Grandenetti, RIP

Mark Evanier posted the sad news this week that Jerry Grandenetti – a great, if somewhat unsung – comic-book artist passed away earlier this year.

It’s not too surprising that Grandenetti’s death escaped the notice of the comic press. He retired from the field in the 1970s to pursue the more lucrative field of advertising.  The artist’s style may have also been a bit idiosyncratic for the emerging fan culture of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

However, Grandenetti rightfully earned many admirers both within and without the field for work that – as Evanier stated – was always “striking and fresh.”

I first encountered Grandenetti’s work during his stint on DC’s Silver Age Spectre title and was floored.  I was used to a more conservative visual style from the home of Superman and Batman, and Grandenetti’s pages were nearly as hallucinogenic as prime Ditko and Steranko.

Grandenetti also served highly acclaimed stints on DC’s war and western titles Warren’s black & white horror magazines. He even earned the “honor” of  seeing his work (badly) swiped by Roy Lichtenstein.

The artist started his career as an assistant to Will Eisner, whose influence is quite apparent in the following story. While working for Eisner’s studio, Grandenetti was assigned to draw a supernatural strip – “The Secret Files Of Doctor Drew” – slated for the Fiction House line of comics.

The result is familiar to any fan of Eisner’s Spirit, but Grandenetti’s willingness to experiment with the comic-book format is readily apparent even at that early date. From Ghost Comics #11, here’s “The Witch’s Doll.”

My condolences to Mr. Grandenetti’s family, friends and associates.

King Is Coming

Speaking of Jack Kirby …

Ninety-three years ago today, the King Of Comics was born and the world became a much richer place.

It would take far too many words to sum up Kirby’s contributions to popular culture via the uniquely American artform of comics, so let’s turn our focus to the days before the King earned his crown.

In 1938, the Fiction House publishing group – which owned and operated such wild and wooly pulp magazine imprints as Glen-Kel and Real Adventures Publishing Co. – decided to expand into the nascent, but rapidly growing, comic-book field.

Publisher Thurman Scott subsequently turned to an aggressive, young company known for creating and packaging comic books, Eisner & Iger (i.e. Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, two guys who already knew a thing or two about comics at that early date).

The result: Jumbo Comics #1, cover dated September, 1938. A compilation of adventure strips, the book is notable today for two reasons – the American debut of Eisner and Iger’s Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle and the first comic-book work of one Jacob Kurtzburg,  better known to us today as Jack Kirby.

Working under a variety of aliases, Kirby contributed a science-fiction strip (“The Diary Of Dr. Hayward” as Curt Davis), a western (“Wilton Of The West” as Fred Sande) and a serialization of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count Of Monte Cristo” (as Jack Curtiss, probably the best pseudonym of the three.)

The features are said to be four pages apiece, but I was unable to find the complete stories. Still, considering that the comic is more than 70 years old and the product of a defunct publisher to boot, we’re fortunate that any material survives at all.

From Jumbo Comics #1, here are fragments of Jack Kirby’s first comic-book works. The strips are crude and only contain hints of what’s to come, but are more than worthwhile for those interested in comics’ rich history.

Happy Kirby day!

Rainbow’s End

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R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

I can’t help but find it coincidental that Dio passed away days after Frank Frazetta. To the ears of this metal warrior, Dio’s phantasmagoric lyrics and banshee vocals were the aural equivalent of a Frazetta painting.

Although a generation of headbangers grew up to Dio’s solo albums, I’ll always hold a fond spot in my heart for the diminutive singer because of his prominent role in those seminal Rainbow albums from the mid-’70s. Along with Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne and Ian Gillan, the guy defined heavy-metal vocals.

Long live rock ‘n’ roll … and Ronnie James Dio.

King Of The Lost Lands

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I spent a good portion of my childhood poring over the unforgettable covers Frank Frazetta created for the paperback editions of countless Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs classics.

(And some non-classics as well. More than once, I found the legendary artist’s illustrations to be superior to the text contained within.)

Each and every one of his paintings transported me to a world much more exciting and exotic than my own humdrum suburban existence. I often wondered how Frazetta created such scenarios and if he were as colorful an individual as I imagined.

Reading though the obituaries written after Frazetta’s death earlier this week, it became apparent he was nothing like I imagined as a star-struck preteen. Although his otherworldly paintings led me to cast Frazetta as a crazy hybrid of Vincent Van Gogh and Gandalf, it turns out he was a robust, confident man who was skilled enough at baseball to seriously consider a career with the New York Giants.

Frazetta showed an early aptitude toward art and was enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 8. By the time he was a teen, Frazetta was earning a living as a comic-book artist. He signed on as an assistant for Al Capp’s Lil’ Abner in the 1950s and by the decade Frazetta discovered the more lucrative field of movie posters and paperback cover illustrations.

The rest, I suppose, is legend.

Coupled with the fact that much of his comic-book work has long been out of print, Frazetta’s notoriety as an illustrator has led many to overlook the artist’s early accomplishments. One of his more notable contributions is Thun’da, Magazine Enterprises’ answer to Tarzan.

Thun’da was adventurer Roger Drum, who found himself stranded in a “lost world of prehistoric beasts” deep in the heart of Africa. The setting gave Frazetta – who modeled Drum after himself (!) – ample opportunity to draw dinosaurs, giant snakes and other types of strange creatures that would find greater exposure in the illustrator’s later work.

(The direction, however, must not have met publisher expectations because later stories took place in a more conventional jungle setting …)

With the aid of writer Gardner Fox, Frazetta completed the entire first issue and subsequently left the character in the Bob Powell’s more than capable hands. Frazetta severed all ties with Magazine Enterprises after Thun’da was adapted into a Columbia Pictures serial without any credit – or money – given to the character’s creator.

Legal and creative issues aside, however, Frazetta’s issue of Thun’da remains one of the better examples of the “jungle man” genre. The art alone is good enough to separate Mr. Drum from his would-be peers.

From Thun’da, King Of The Congo #1, here’s “King Of Lost Lands” by Frazetta and Fox.

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If you’re interested in reading more of Frank Frazetta’s Golden Age work, pick up a copy of Underwood Books Telling Stories: The Classic Comic Art Of Frank Frazetta. Although editor Edward Mason adopts an annoyingly patronizing attitude toward Golden Age storytelling, the high-quality reprints of Frazetta’s art are more than worth the price of admission.