ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE

(Guido Nolitta/Gallieno Ferri; EPICENTER COMICS/SERGIO BONELLI EDITORE; 2017)
cover

What a magnificently bizarre book! The setting is kind of a Western thing (more on that later)… it’s sort of a tale of fantasy and magic… it’s basically your standard super-hero versus super-villain comic yarn (in a rather twisted Italian, anti-hero way). Call it what you will, from the beautiful Michele Rubini cover to the final panel, it is a wildly fun read! Even though I was totally unaware of the heroic exploits of the lead character, he’s been around since (depending on which website you’re checking out) either 1961 or 1965… I gather that he appeared in a regular comic STRIP in Italy until he was introduced into the comic BOOK world four years later. Whether it was ‘61 or ‘65, it makes Zagor a contemporary of Stan Lee’s Marvel universe (characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Doctor Strange) and the tail-end of DC’s super-hero universe rebirth (with updated versions of the Atom, Hawkman and Green Lantern… pretty much everyone outside the publisher’s holy Trinity). For reference points within those two publisher’s Western books, the character most closely resembles the long-running (1947-1972) DC hero, TOMAHAWK, as well as later creations like Marvel’s Red Wolf and DC’s mystical hero, the original El Diablo, both of which debuted in the early 1970s. That, however, is a rather short-sighted summation of the heroic Zagor; there are also elements of the Batman, Tarzan (or maybe Ka-Zar, Marvel’s ruler of the Savage Land), Francis of Assisi (the patron Saint of ecology, among other things) and Captain America. In other words, Zagor is sort of an amalgam of every heroic figure (both real and fictional) that came before or after… I wonder just how many American comic book heroes of the late ‘60s and beyond can trace their ancestry back to the Italian comics that spawned Zagor.

Poster included with ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE (art by GALLIENO FERRI and WELL-BEE)

Poster included with ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE (art by GALLIENO FERRI and WELL-BEE)

The massive – nearly 300 pages – ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE saga originally appeared in issues 122-125 of the hero’s book, published between September and December, 1975 and it features all of the hallmarks of every title published by Marvel, DC, Charlton and Gold Key from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, including the artwork. Without getting into too many specifics, I can identify stylistic reference points to the highly underrated Herb Trimpe (who spent seven years drawing THE INCREDIBLE HULK), Sal Buscema (who followed Trimpe with a remarkable ten year run on the same book and is also known for long stints on THE DEFENDERS and THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, among others), Buscema’s big brother, John, DC workhorse Bob Brown, the legendary John Romita, famed SUPERMAN artist Curt Swan and Dell and Gold Key stalwart Tom Gill. That, my friends, puts artist (and Zagor co-creator) Gallieno Ferri in pretty heady company. The unidentified colorist is masterful, as well, in a retro-’70s kinda way; the original Italian books were published in black and white and this particular edition utilizes the solid bright colors of American comics of the time (as in, none of the major shading or gradation effects that have become the norm in this age of – admittedly superior – computer-generated color).

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 48 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 48 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

Guido Nolitta’s (the pseudonym of co-creator and publisher Sergio Bonelli) story is as rollicking and freewheeling as you would expect from any American-style Western comic (or movie) from the period immediately prior to such fare taking on much darker tones in story and character. In fact, the tale may have been a bit ahead of the curve, as the figure of Supermike isn’t really evil so much as he is conceited, boastful and arrogant regarding his abilities. Toss in Zagor’s frustrations and a willingness to cross boundaries he said he would never cross, committing several dubious acts that belie his humble, benevolent and utterly trustworthy nature and, suddenly, the heroic lead is thrust into the unenviable role of anti-hero; likewise, the villain of the piece takes on a more sympathetic role. These are things that I’m sure Nolitta and Ferri discussed and grappled with before (and probably, even after the story was published) going ahead with the concept. From what I’ve gathered from checking out reviews and comments online and from reading the three superb – though the translations may leave a bit to be desired – essays at the front of this edition (“Zagor Versus Supermachine,” “The Immortality of an Idea!” and, especially, Darko Mrgan’s “The Clash of Vanity”), this near-seismic shift in character for Zagor was not well-embraced at the time and continues to be debated to this day amongst longtime fans of the series. As a newcomer to the character, the shift was nearly imperceptible… or maybe it was a wholly American thought process that had me thinking, “Dude, it’s about time! I woulda plowed the guy right in his perfect mouth about 250 pages ago!” It does make for good drama, though, as Zagor and his companion, Chico (who acts as comedic foil and occasional whipping boy, much like Pancho, the Kid’s loyal sidekick in the uncompromisingly upbeat stories of THE CISCO KID), struggle with how to handle a man intent on destroying the reputation and good name of Zagor among his loyal friends and legion of protectorates. As our hero trails his nemesis, he is beaten and humiliated at every turn, losing the trust of the many Native American tribes he has vowed to protect, as well as losing face with the town folk in and around his “kingdom,” known as Darkwood Forest. His close alliance with the United States Army is also stretched to the breaking point.

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 53 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 53 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

Before delving into this particular saga, let’s take a quick look at the hero of the piece, Zagor. Born Patrick Wilding, the son of a retired Army officer, the youngster was witness to the slaughter of his parents (a plot device which also played into the development of Batman and so many other characters from the historic halls of fiction) by a rogue band of Indians; taken in by a trapper called Wandering Fitzy, young Patrick learns to wield a common hatchet as a deadly weapon. Fueled by a lust for revenge and curious to learn more about his parents, the boy soon discovers that his father’s hands were not clean of the blood of the innocent. Conflicted, the young man who would become Zagor vowed to set things right as the friend and protector of the downtrodden and misunderstood, regardless of the color of their skin. Many of his impressive athletic skills, as well as his great physical stamina, were developed through an association with an acrobatic family named the Sullivans (a nod to a certain Boy Wonder’s family, the Flying Graysons?). As the Native American tribes came to accept Wilding’s friendship and staunch support of their human rights, they gave him the Indian name “Za-Gor Te-Nay,” which translates into “the Spirit With the Hatchet.” All of this takes place, quite naturally, in the wild and wooly American west of the late 1800s, right? Well… not quite. While Zagor is considered a hero of the “Wild West,” that “west” is actually the Northeastern Woodlands of the early nineteenth century (around 1830 or so), specifically, an unsettled region of Pennsylvania. But, then, I suppose Pennsylvania is quite a bit to the west of Italy, so I’m not gonna dwell on that one too much.

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 136 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE, page 136 (written by GUIDO NOLITTA, art by GALLIENO FERRI)

So… anyway, here’s the basic plot of ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE: Things start off, as most good Westerns generally do, with a stagecoach barreling through a barren expanse of desert (in the Appalachian Plateau region!), our hero comfortably ensconced in the carriage. Atop the coach is an irascible driver intent on making his next stop on schedule. So laser-focused on maintaining his schedule is Buddy, the driver, that he refuses to stop even when a sharp-dressed dandy in a bowler hat (something that wasn’t even around until at least fifteen years later, but… I digress) appears in the middle of the vehicles’ path; this dandy is none other than Mike Gordon, who has dubbed himself “Supermike,” a true legend in his own mind. As Zagor, Chico and the other passengers question the driver’s motivation for refusing to stop, a very surprised Buddy comes flying past the window. The athletically gifted Mister Gordon, taking umbrage with the driver, had caught up with and climbed aboard the stagecoach, heaving the hapless Buddy over the side and, reigning in the team, begins to pummel the man before Zagor can step in and stop him. The boastful New Yorker regales his fellow passengers with tales of his expertise in many different areas, proving his point by playing a rare and expensive flute perfectly and schooling an elderly woman on the finer points of crocheting. Upon reaching their destination, Supermike makes short work of a local whose prime source of income is menial labor utilizing his exceptional strength. By that evening, Zagor has had quite enough of this Mike Gordon’s superiority complex, as he bests a table of local card sharps before returning their money and buying the entire saloon drinks. When a notorious gunfighter draws down on the town’s sheriff, Zagor is drawn further into Gordon’s web of conceit as the man makes no effort to stop the outlaw; wounding the sheriff, the miscreant is taken out rather handily by Zagor. Later, on the stage out of town, Supermike’s reason for not interfering with the gunman is made obvious: Gordon was merely setting up a confrontation for later to prove his mastery of guns by beating the unbeatable “Flash” Cadigan to the draw. For the King of Darkwood Forest, this is a step too far, leading to a confrontation with the braggadocious Gordon; a confrontation that sees Zagor losing his temper and having to be restrained, leaving Supermike battered, bloody and swearing revenge. That revenge – a total dismantling of Zagor’s life and world – takes up the remainder of the action-filled story. Without giving away any more of the story’s twists and turns, I’ll just say that ZAGOR VERSUS SUPERMIKE gives the reader everything they could hope for in a nostalgic look back at a simpler time in comic book storytelling. This digest-sized presentation is Epicenter Comics’ fourth omnibus offering of some of Zagor’s more epic adventures from this period, with more to come. I, for one, can’t wait.


DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND

(Shane Hensley/Various Writers and Artists; IDW PUBLISHING/VISIONARY COMICS/PINNACLE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP; 2015)

Dead-Mans-Hand

What an absolutely beautiful book this is! Anyone familiar with Shane Hensley’s DEADLANDS role playing game will recognize the characters and the concept and will be immediately drawn into this world of gun-play and spiritualism. Likewise, anyone who remembers THE WILD, WILD WEST (the 1960s television series or the updated movie version starring Will Smith) will recognize the science-fiction/steampunk feel present here (especially in the first story, “The Devil’s Six Gun”) or, if you’re familiar with the early ’70s DC comic, WEIRD WESTERN TALES (home of El Diablo, a spooky Zorro knock-off with awesome art from Gray Morrow and, later, Neal Adams; the pages of WWT also saw the debut of Jonah Hex, one of DC’s most endearing western characters), you will definitely want to check out DEAD MAN’S HAND, a book that is filled with demons, spirits, monsters and supernatural happenings aplenty. Of course, these new era stories are more violent, more graphic, with far more blood than those earlier creators could depict. With that in mind, allow me to amend my first sentence to read, “What an absolutely beautifully written and illustrated book this is!”

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "The Devil's Six Gun" (Written by DAVID GALLAHER, art by STEVE ELLIS)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “The Devil’s Six Gun” (Written by DAVID GALLAHER, art by STEVE ELLIS)

The majority of the collection compiles the original four issue run of Image Comics one-shots, beginning with “The Devil’s Six Gun” by the award-winning team of David Gallaher and Steve Ellis. The tale follows the life of scientific genius Copernicus Blackburne, a man driven to explore the unexplained. When the sewing machine repair shop he works for is given a military contract to develop new firearms, Copernicus creates and refines the protean pistol, the most accurate and deadliest weapon known to mankind. His efforts draw the attention of an American benefactor, Samuel Tygian, who commissions Copernicus to further refine his pistol, producing the ultimate weapon. As Blackburne immerses himself into his work, a series of unfortunate events robs him of his family, his home and… well, let’s just say that you should always read the fine print before signing any contract. Gallaher’s story is taut as a bowstring, while still adding little bits of personal information that allows the reader to develop an empathy toward the lead character, even as we follow his walk down the path to destruction; Ellis’ artwork is intricate and filled with a life that very few of today’s comic artists are capable of producing. The story sets the tone nicely for what’s still to come.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Massacre At Red Wing" (Written by JIMMY PALMIOTTI and JUSTIN GRAY, art by LEE MODER and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Massacre At Red Wing” (Written by JIMMY PALMIOTTI and JUSTIN GRAY, art by LEE MODER and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

Massacre At Red Wing,” written by long-time Jonah Hex scribes Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, is a story about a girl and her dog. The young woman’s path finds her seeking her past and fulfilling her destiny; Clementime is searching for her mother, an Indian woman, who thinks that her baby daughter was put to death by her rapist, a white man who may have more than a touch of demon blood coursing through his veins. Having gained certain information that may lead her to her mother, Clementime is traveling to a small town called Red Wing. Along the way, she comes across a community beset by demons. She considers leaving demon and human alike to their own fates, but decides to intercede, using her mystical powers to defeat the demons and, with her dog’s help, gain additional knowledge as to the whereabouts of her mother. Once she reaches Red Wing, the story reverts to a rather standard tale of rescue and revenge. In this case, though, “standard” doesn’t mean bad or even particularly predictable… the title pretty much tells you where this story’s going; it’s just a well-used plot in the Western genre, whether in comics, movies, literature or any other medium. For the most part, the story is character driven, with some fairly graphic violence tossed in just to remind the reader what kind of book they’re reading. The art by Lee Moder (with colorist Michael Atiyeh working with a palette that’s far brighter and more inviting than most would use for such a tale) is very much in the style of the great Gil Kane, with beautifully rendered figures and graceful action sequences. “Massacre At Red Wing” is one of the most visually stunning pieces of comics work you’re likely to see.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Death Was Silent" (Written by RON MARZ, art by BART SEARS and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Death Was Silent” (Written by RON MARZ, art by BART SEARS and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

The gritty, atmospheric “Death Was Silent” is an Old West take on the whole INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS scenario. Hoyt Cooper arrives in town on a bleak, rainy day, a body draped over his saddle. Cooper, whose tongue was cut out by “savages,” wears a slate board on his chest. The board has had a spell cast on it, allowing Cooper to “speak”; whatever he thinks, appears on the board. The slate announces that Cooper has shown up to kill everyone in the town, which is completely infected by an alien being. With a little help from an unexpected source, Cooper goes about ridding the earth of the alien mother and her offspring in a brutal display of violence. Series editor, Ron Marz’s story has everything that you could ask for in a western yarn laced with science-fiction elements and just a touch of voodoo; the artwork, by Bart Sears, matches the feel of the script perfectly… dark and moody. Atiyeh is back, using much harsher colors… drab and dreary, evoking the gloomy atmosphere of an inhabited town, as well as the weather conditions the story takes place in. Of all of the stories in DEAD MAN’S HAND, this one comes closest to the feel of those early Jonah Hex tales.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Black Water" (Written by JEFF MARIOTTE, art by BROOK TURNER and C EDWARD SELLNER)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Black Water” (Written by JEFF MARIOTTE, art by BROOK TURNER and C EDWARD SELLNER)

Black Water” is a tale of greed, lust and revenge, with equal parts Greek mythology, Scottish lore, ancient Chinese curses, TREASURE ISLAND, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Harmon Rappaport, a rich and ruthless man, has been on a quest to find a woman he saw only once (and that, after being hit with a musket ball during the Civil War); after a visit to a spiritualist, where he learns that the woman is dead, Rappaport plans a voyage to the mystical maze of Shan Fen, where the seer says the woman can be found. The siren call of the woman leads Rappaport, his body guard Ian Fairfax and a gunslinger and self-professed “guide” named Lyle Crumbfine set out on a paddle steamer heading downstream, in search of the maze; also along for the ride are the vessel’s captain and several other interesting passengers. Three nights into the trip, the boat is destroyed by a waterspout, leaving the passengers to struggle toward the beach and safety. What lies ahead is an exciting journey of sea monsters, ambushes, death and revenge. Jeff Mariotte weaves a suspenseful yarn, exploring the extent and the deprivations that one man will go to acquire the one thing he cannot have; Brook Turner’s intricate art shows the influences of some of the legends of the field, including – most evident – Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Rich Buckler. Visionary Comics honcho C Edward Sellner’s deft hand and astute eye turns in a brilliant color job.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "What a Man's Got To Do" (Written by MATTHEW CUTTER, art by ULISES ROMAN and DOUG SPENCER); "Vengeful" (Written by SHANE HENSLEY, art by SEAN LEE, MIKE MUNSHAW and C EDWARD SELLNER)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “What a Man’s Got To Do” (Written by MATTHEW CUTTER, art by ULISES ROMAN and DOUG SPENCER); “Vengeful” (Written by SHANE HENSLEY, art by SEAN LEE, MIKE MUNSHAW and C EDWARD SELLNER)

One of two new stories to this edition is called “What a Man’s Got To Do.” Written by DEADLANDS brand manager, Matthew Cutter, and illustrated by Ulises Roman (with colors by Doug Spencer), the short piece delves into Indian mysticism and spirit animals, as Lucas Pitt joins a posse that is, ultimately, massacred by the outlaws they were hunting. With Pitt, the only survivor, on the run from the villains, he and they quickly discover that Lucas is a completely different… animal when he’s sleeping. DEADLANDS creator Shane Hensley supplies the script for the other new story, “Vengeful.” A marshal’s idyllic retirement is shattered by an escaped convict, intent on exacting revenge on the marshal and his wife. As the outlaw and his gang sets fire to the couple’s home, leaving the bodies to rot, we are quickly reminded that, sometimes, even a righteous soul can want vengeance. The art, provided by penciller Sean Lee, inker Mike Munshaw and colorist Sellner, is spacious, befitting the wide-open land it depicts. Other unique bonus features include a roleplaying supplement for the DEADLANDS RELOADED game, character concept sketches from Steve Ellis, Lee Moder and Brook Turner and a preview of the first DEADLANDS novel, GHOSTWALKERS, written by Jonathan Maberry and due from Tor Books this fall. Whether you’re into the RPG or not, whether you’re into weird western comics or not, you are still going to love the storytelling and the magnificent art of DEAD MAN’S HAND… don’t miss out.


DEADLANDS PROMOTION

(UPDATE BELOW)

DEADLANDS Promo

Back in the day, when the only comic books that I had access to were from Marvel, DC and the Warren black and white magazines, I bought and read just about every title from those three publishers. As they began to price me out of their market, I drifted on to other things, buying only the hardcover collections of some of my favorites. Now, however, with the Mule expanding past the music coverage that fLUSH and fLUSHstl was known for, I’m playing a bit of catch-up, especially with the ever-expanding world of indie imprints and studios. Which brings me to Visionary Comics and a title called DEADLANDS. DEADLANDS began as a role playing game (for those unfamiliar with RPGs, think DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, but set in Old West), expanded to a series of one-shot comics published by Image and, now, has grown to include novelizations, new comic stories, a proposed television series and more.

Now, IDW Comics is issuing a trade paperback (TPB) of the four Image one-shots, which will also feature a couple of new stories (one written by DEADLANDS creator, Shane Hensley), as well as a preview of the first novel, GHOSTWALKERS (by Jonathan Maberry and due from Tor Books this fall). While the TPB won’t be in your favorite comics shop ’til March, Visionary is offering a pre-order special for the collection, called DEAD MAN’S HAND. Here’s how that works: Through the January 29th deadline, pre-order the book at your favorite shop, post “I just got dealt the #DeadMansHand at (name of shop where you pre-ordered)” and e-mail a link to that post to PreOrderPromo@visionarycomics.com; you will then receive two free PDF books, a copy of the comic book THE KID, and a DEADLANDS RELOADED game book of your choosing. Pretty cool, huh? The Visionary web-site has all of the details here: visionarycomics.com/pre-order-dead-mans-hand-now-get-free-books; if you wanna check out the book, you can go here: visionarycomics.com/feature-dead-mans-hand-creator-spotlights.

So… full disclosure time here: Neither myself nor the Mule are associated with Visionary Comics, IDW Publishing, Tor Books or any entity involved with this project. I contacted Visionary because I thought the book looked like something I would enjoy. Likewise, the Mule just thought that our readers would like to check out what we think is a really cool weird western comic book (review coming soon) and get a bunch of free stuff, to boot… or not… your call.

UPDATE: Due to popular demand, this pre-order promotion has been extended through Monday, February 16, 2015. You’ve still got time but, it’s running out faster than you think!