RIP Marie Severin

When Russ Heath recently died I mentioned he was one of the last greats of American comics. Another of the last greats has sadly passed away with Marie Severin who died at the age of 89.

Severin for me isn’t just responsible for the version of the Hulk (working with the great Herb Trimpe)  I think of wherever I think of the character, and there’s been some great versions of the character over the decades. Her Hulk wasn’t a massive, musclebound monster but something elegant, brutal and tragic.

As for her Doctor Strange it’s not Ditko, but she took elements of Ditko to go on a different path helping create characters like the wonderful Living Tribunal.

But her role in the formative years of Marvel Comics is one often underplayed, or just plain ignored. She acted as art director, colourist, production editor or just anything to keep Marvel publishing comics on track and looking good just as she made EC Comics look good with her colouring in the 1950’s.

It’ll be her more cartoony, humour work she’ll be remembered by and some of it is just amazing.

There really isn’t too many greats left now, and Severin for years never got the acclaim she deserved because she’s a woman however her death has highlighted not just her talent but the fact that in the history of American comics, Marie Severin was one of the most important figures in its development for decades. She’ll be missed.

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RIP Russ Heath

Russ Heath was one of the last surviving artists from a Golden Age of comics has died aged 91, and I guarantee you’ve all seen at least one piece of his art even if you’ve never read a comic in your life because thanks to Roy Lichtenstein’s theft of his work.

Heath worked for decades in an industry which may never have paid him well, but kept him in work which for many artists isn’t the case.  The fact he barely touched superheroes choosing to draw a wide variety of genres but it is the war comic he’ll be best known for.

But is Roy Lichtenstien’s use (And by ‘use’ I mean uncredited theft) of his work that means you’ve seen a Russ Heath piece of art but you have no idea who drew it. You probably thought it was Lichtenstein. As artist Dave Gibbons points out, Lichtenstein just did bad copies of more talented people’s work but it the marketing of, and the idea that Lichtenstein ‘elevated’ junk art into something else (when in fact all the stuff that makes Lichtenstein’s work art is there from the people he’s ripping off) which rankled Heath til well into his old age.

Heath is his later years addressed this in a one-page comic for The Hero Initiative; an organisation designed to help comic creators in need.

For me it’ll be his Sgt Rock material I remember him best for.

Heath was an original that should have died a millionaire, but didn’t. Losing him means we don’t have many of the greats that formed the language of modern American comics left. He’ll be missed.

RIP Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin has passed away at age 76 from cancer on the same day of the month that Elvis Presley died in 1977. Franklin as a singer, star and icon easily matches, if not surpasses Elvis because that’s how important she was.

Like a number of my generation I only discovered her thanks to The Blues Brothers; a film that seemed to give a second wind to amazing artists of the 1960s who by the late 70s/early 80s were on various degrees of a career slump, but after this were introduced to a whole new audience.

Also Scritti Politti’s Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) was another point that flashed her named up to people unfamiliar with who she was.

Once discovered, few could forget Franklin’s music which will live on hopefully for as long as there’s people, or creatures, who can appreciate her music.

And dear me, there’s so much in her catalogue that is just perfect.

I could go on for hours and hours but there’s never going to be the like again. She’ll be missed but fuck me, what a legacy she leaves.

Losing Steve Ditko

In one week we’ve lost Harlan Ellison and now, Steve Ditko. Both were uncompromising but whereas Ellison was vocal in defending his actions and work, Ditko was the exact opposite often to the detriment of his career.Ditko’s death hurts and I think the tributes pouring out for him are all so touching because although Jack Kirby was a genius who created a large part of the Marvel Universe, it was Ditko who created much of what Kirby didn’t.

Ditko was a reclusive to the point where the only pictures we have on him come mainly from one photo session in the early 1960’s. He spoke through his work and he did so in a way no creator working for Marvel or DC could today.

I wasn’t aware of Ditko as a kid. I was reading American imports of Spider-Man but this was the late John Romita, early Gil Kane run so it was through his DC work I was most familiar with him. Especially his creation, The Creeper who to this day I adore still.

It was though Marvel UK’s reprints I got to lap up Ditko’s Spider-Man and then his Hulk and Doctor Strange which blew my tiny little mind.

But it’ll be Spider-Man he’ll be remembered for and I’ll always remember his splash pages from Amazing Spider-Man annual #1.

It wasn’t til the 80’s that I became aware of how some fans as well as large chunks of the media were pushing the line that Stan Lee had created Spider-Man by himself, something Ditko addressed in his self-published comics.

Ditko never compromised. He could have but if you’ve read any of Ditko’s work you’d realise Ditko wasn’t about compromise. A is A. Ditko’s political beliefs would never let him sell out and it’s Ditko’s politics married with his visuals that made him unique. As a Guardian reading lefty, I should be repulsed by Ditko’s often hard right Ayn Randian philosophies but I’m fascinated by them, and in what it inspired Ditko to create.

Indeed, his politics was essential in creating the idea of his Peter Parker as an outsider, which set him aside from others in the era of Vietnam War protests.

When Ditko left Marvel it was here that things get interesting. His work for me at DC and Charlton is incredible with the aforementioned Creeper, plus the Blue Beetle and The Question standing out.

I’d come across Ditko’s work in the 70’s and loved the weird oddness of it all. I especially loved Killjoy which ran as a back-up in Charlton’s E-Man.

Although Ditko returned to Marvel in the 1980’s he left to work alone on his own comics published by Robin Snyder, and again, he’s still not compromising.

Ditko has been with us drawing comics for over 60 years and he never stopped creating, or doing what he wanted to do. Now he’s gone and we’ll never get Ditko’s worldview of right and wrong, good and evil or just what he thinks will thrill or astound us anymore.

He’ll be missed. The unique always should be.

Losing Harlan Ellison

I have a Harlan Ellison story. Lots and lots of people who’ve been in, or are fans of, comics, SF, fantasy or just fans of his writing have a story. I’ve told mine before but here it is again. In 1985 at a SF convention in Glasgow, Ellison was guest of honour and was having great fun pissing off and entertaining all the right people because even as a young lad somewhat awestruck at being even in the same city as one of his heroes, I could see that Ellison danced the line between genius and arsehole easily. One minute he’s be amiable and chatty, the next he’d be annoyed and angry but he’d never compromise himself. His comments about writers getting paid show this.

So back to the story. I was working a dealers table selling comics and Ellison came in to have a shufty at our stuff. He picked a few things up and much to everyone’s surprise knew more about British comics than I’d have suspected. I was wearing a Marvelman badge, and spinning off the conversation from Warrior, Ellison asked if we had any for sale which we didn’t. He then asked if he could have mine. I eventually gave him it because this was my hero and I didn’t want to disappoint.

Ellison later came over to me in the bar, offered to get a drink and we ended up chatting about how great Dreamscape was. Indeed, it still is.

Ellison then had to move on with his small entourage but I was a happy lad as he’d signed a copy of The Glass Teat which is one of the greatest books of criticism ever published.  That book is something that influenced why I started this blog, and in fact it wasn’t until Ellison’s death I realised how much he’d shaped me growing up.

See, that wee story I have is something I’ve pulled out often over the years because it is a great wee story. The part of the story I usually miss out is when Ellison talked about not compromising which is something I don’t think Ellison did once in his life which led him to do great things, not to mention some awful things.

But that idea that someone can’t compromise because once you do it then becomes a game as to how far you’ll go without fully compromising yourself. I can’t remember when I did start compromising and although my life was better in some ways, a wee part of me was dead.

I’ll miss Ellison not being around. I’ll miss not being able to see if there’s a new soundbite  that I can use to help me sum up current events, and with current events being horrible I think we’ve lost a guide at a bad time.We’ll still have his mountain of work but we’ve lost a voice who could be good or bad, arrogant and uncompromising but always had something worthwhile to say. There will never be another like him.

Goodbye and thanks for whatever small lessons you’ve given me. I’m going to watch Dreamscape later and wallow in the memories of 1985.

From Earthsea to Manchester

Yesterday saw the deaths of writer Ursula Le Guin and musician Mark E. Smith. Both were much, much more than just a writer and a musician and both were complicated people which has made some of the reactions to their deaths highlight just how polarised, and even simplistic some people can be.

Le Guin wrote science fiction and fantasy. She defended what she wrote as SF, and didn’t take the easy option of classing her work as something the middle class literati would accept without turning their nose up as something as ‘common’ as SF. She threw out SF stories which challenged you as a reader to think about ideas that were human and alien. Her fantasy tales of Earthsea were liberally ‘borrowed’ by writers lesser than her (I expect J.K Rowling’s cheque got lost in the post…) and she built utopia’s that seemed functional. I soundly recommend The Dispossessed as it is one of the finest books ever written and you need to search out her essay The Stalin in the Soul if you’ve ever slaved in a job wishing you’d quit to become an artist.

Had the left in the UK adopted her as much as the hippies in the 1970’s did, then things might be very different. Her vision of utopia, equality & sane, evidence driven policy mixed with frankly, a Punk aesthetic which brings me nicely to Mark E. Smith. Smith was The Fall; a post-Punk band which was more than a band. Drawing from a massive amount of influences Smith recreated himself as something we don’t do much anymore as he became an original. One of his big influences is H.PLovecraft (you can hear The Fall as a Lovecraftian band very easily) which brings me to this wonderful bit of telly as Smith reads Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space.

It will be the music & the thought behind it that Smith should be remembered for. My favourite period are the Brix Smith years. Partly because the material appeals more to my pop-punk sensibilities, but also because Smith seemed settled and at a creative, not to mention, commercial, high.

Even having a genuine hit and everything in the charts! This is also the video that made me fall for Brix Smith. Sigh…

And Smith even tried to sing.

But go back and listen to his early stuff. It is simply amazing to hear how mature it is in the sense that Smith had a clear vision of what he wanted to sound like.

And of course the English national anthem they never had.

The Fall live of course was a lottery. Some times like a gig in Leicester in the early 90’s, or at the Astoria in London in the late 90’s, or at Strathclyde Uni in the 80’s, they were astonishing. Sometimes like Reading Festival in 1999 they were a shambles. As for Smith he could be a prick. He was often someone who came over as dislikeable at times, but then he was also as good as gold. I once saw him hanging around after a gig in London chatting to folk. Fact is, he, like any of us, was a complex person.

Yesterday took from us two original thinkers and creators. Both were complex, often uncompromising human beings who always to be there it seemed. Both were amazingly prolific. Both seemed to be invulnerable. Both are gone and from Earthsea to Manchester we’re all a little bit diminished for their passing.

Peter Wyngarde has passed away

For people of a certain age, Peter Wyngarde was the face of the school holidays where you’d be glued to the telly watching repeats of Jason King or Department S. He later of course cut a wonderful baddie in Flash Gordon as Klytus.

Wyngarde was one of those actors who ended up inspiring a whole load of people from Mike Myers for his Austin Powers character, to Chris Claremont and John Byrne for their X Men run with the ‘Jason Wyngarde’ character.

He was so popular at one point he released a solo album titled imaginatively enough, Peter Wyngarde. It has a track called Rape.

Moving on, he also did a fantastic version of Neville Thumbcatch which just sums up that point in the early 70’s where the hippy dream hasn’t fully died yet, but we’re also falling into a cultural mess that ends up in Punk in 1976.

So cheerio to one of those characters we’ll never, ever have again…