|From The Defenders #24, by Gerber, Buscema and McCleod|
1. On How Steve Gerber's Scripts Seemed To Bring The Best Out Of His Collaborators
Steve Gerber's stint as the writer on The Defenders resulted in one of the most remarkable superhero team books that there's even been. Yet the success of that radical, thrilling run of just 26 precious comicbooks was the consequence of Gerber's collaboration with a series of artists who even in the day were all-too-often regarded as, at best, journeymen and, at worst, hacks. Only once was Gerber partnered on either the title or its extra-sized spin-offs with an artist who was either one of the industry's elite storytellers or an obviously gifted penciller from the coming generation, and that was when he worked with Jim Starlin on Giant-Sized Defenders #3. But the irony is that was in many ways a cursed project, thrown together by necessity at the very last moment, with Starlin able to do nothing but offer layouts which were then finished off by a team of three very different inkers.(*1)
*1:- Gerber did have Gene Colan and Tom Palmer on his team for the covers when the Defenders appeared in the Howard The Duck Treasury, but that's far, far more of a Howard tale in comedic tone and broad satirical purpose.
|From The Defenders #38, by Gerberm Buscema & Janson|
Yet there was something about Gerber's work which seems to have inspired the less-renown and acclaimed artists that he worked with. The comics fandom of the time may have often expressed frustration with and even disdain for the work of Sal Buscema, George Tuska and Don Heck, and yet Gerber was having nothing of that. He always expressed, for example, the most sincere of regards for the younger Buscema's capacity to tell his out-there stories in a way which meant that they were both effective and accessible. Similarly, when Harlan Ellison and Gary Groth managed to define Heck as the worst artist in comics, Gerber gently yet determinedly expressed his respect for the contributions the artist had made to several issues of Giant-Sized Defenders.
|From The Defenders #33, by Gerber, Buscema & Moody, in which a superhero's body inhabited by a colleague's spirit attempts to steal back Nighthawk's brain, which has been lying around in a dish!|
It would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that Gerber's stories on the title succeeded despite the quality of his co-creator's efforts. It's undeniably true that artists from the front rank of the industry, such as Neal Adams, or young Turks such as Walt Simonson, would have helped transform Gerber's plots into crowd-pleasing, cognoscenti-inspiring masterpieces. But Buscema, as Gerber's main collaborator, Heck and Tuska helped ground Gerber's often experimental and always daring tales in ways which made his work approachable for a mass audience. When, for example, Gerber produced a tale in which Nighthawk's quite literally mindless body is accidentally possessed by his acquaintance Jack Norris and then used to steal back its original brain, the clarity and energy of Buscema's layouts ensured that no-one was either confused or disinterested in the deliberately farcical events.
An artist treasured by Marvel's then-editorial staff for his ability to produce four and even more complete books of layouts a month, Sal Buscema's only-partially-completed pencils obviously relied heavily on the quality of his colleagues. In the opening splash for The Defenders #24, for example, his work was finished off by inker Bob McCleod. (The colour version of it is at the head of this page, the black and white straight above.) The quality of both composition and finished work is immediately evident. The sense of the situation is wordlessly precise and fiercely charged with jeopardy; the Defenders have been trapped by their enemies and no good at all is likely to come from the situation. At a glance, protagonists, antagonists, set and conflict have all been instantly spelled out, with an extra level of claustrophobia and menace supplied by the way in which the faces of the bound heroes are shown pinned between two threatening, metallic serpent heads.
Buscema's design here is a storyteller's delight. The first figure that the eye encounters after taking in the meaning of the shot as a whole is that of Dr Strange, whose prone figure instantly informs the in-the-know reader that there's going to be no easy teleport away from the crisis. From the off, therefore, the matter of when-will-the-magician-wake-up is fixed in the audience's mind. Even the mood of the crowd of super-villain cannon-fodder is emphasised through the simple and yet elegant choice to show us the teeth-grimacing minion at the front of the picture plane in profile. Added to this is the meticulous, fine-lined inking of McCleod, who ensures that Buscema's guidelines are transformed into work that's distinct, recognisable and compelling. With the inker's well-judged use of screentone on the Serpent's helmets, for example, a degree of flash and perspective is added to the solid, first-wave Marvel virtues of Buscema's art.
|From Giant-Size Defenders #4, by Gerber, Heck & Colletta|
The veteran artist Don Heck joined Gerber for the final two Giant-Size issues of The Defenders. (*2) I've written about Heck's collaboration with inker Colletta on Too Cold A Night For Dying before - find it here - so I'll not repeat myself. But it remains a fine example of two craftsmen whose styles were reaching the point of commercial obsolesce rallying and achieving a great deal. Given that Gerber's story is a wrenchingly sad tale of a disordered super-villain and the niece that he ends up mutilating, the understatement of Heck and Colletta's work succeeds in establishing pathos while avoiding the tritest of melodramatic excess.
*2:- The Giant-Size issues were an experiment which lasted barely 18 months. They were essentially annual-sized extra comics which appeared once a quarter in addition to the regularly-scheduled title they were associated with. This meant that a title like the Defenders, for example, would actually have 16 rather than 12 issues over the course of a year, with each Giant-Size issue containing roughly 30 pages of original material plus reprints.
|From Marvel Two-In-One #6, by Gerber, Tuska and Esposito|
Gerber also worked with George Tuska on the two issues of Marvel-Two-In-One which crossed over with The Defenders #20, his debut script for the title.. By the mid-Seventies, Tuska work had long since been characterised by a series of stock shots which still succeeded in expressing an impressive if not innovative sense of vigour and power. Indeed, Marvel's Roy Thomas has more than once noted that Tuska's presence on a title was guaranteed to raise its sales well considerably, which suggests that his work was far from out of step with the readers of the time, if not the critics. In the above page from MTI0 #6, there are aspects of the penciller's work which seem more than just over-familiar. The figure in the first panel who's shown falling back behind Stephen Strange is one likely to be encountered in any Tuska story of the period. Yet Tuska's work here has three not-to-be under-estimated qualities. The first is a palpable, genial sense of wonder. The entirely unexpected explosion of the woman threatened with being crushed beneath the subway train showers the page's panel with a gently magical spectacle. The second is the impressive degree of competency shown in the scene of the train pulling into the station. Tuska had there been handed a complex and difficult task which might challenge a less able and experienced artist. Not only does he have to show the train and, within it, its drivers, but he also has to deliver the occult pyrotechnics and - and! - show each of the travellers on the platform reacting to the situation. Lastly, his work projects a undeniable charm, with the tramp in the third panel and the curious woman in the fourth standing as curiously sympathetic figures.
Despite the presence of some desperately workmanlike inking during Gerber's Defender's run, Buscema's art was blessed by some particularly impressive interpretations too. We've already mentioned Bob McCleod and, despite the common prejudice, Vince Colletta, and in the panels above can be seen two striking images from Jim Moody's short run on the title. Known far more now for the romantic amiability of his work on features such as DC's Supergirl in the Sixties, Moody was a gifted inker capable of producing work which belied his own apparently favoured style. (*3) Both panels above, for example, are impressively threatening, with Moody's use of chiaroscuro accentuating the dangers facing Dr Strange and his allies. In the first panel, Strange is shown emerging from a self-induced magical trance. Buscema has ensured that the moment of returned self-awareness exists without a need for exposition, but it's Moody who captures the sense of disturbing dislocation on Strange's face. In the second, Moody's brave use of such a prominent, unbroken block of shadow lends his subject an impressive authority as well as insisting that fearsome dangers lie before the Defenders. It's a choice which accentuates the gravity of the situation, which gives Gerber the freedom to add dialogue speculating upon the theft of Nighthawk's brain, a touch which a less foreboding panel might have rendered more ridiculous than unsettling.
*3:- Of course, the beautifully moody inking which Moody contributed to The Amazing Spider-Man, over John Romita in particular, is often unjustly ignored when it comes to noting the best artists who've worked on the character.
|From the first Defenders Annual, by Gerber, Buscema and Janson|
Finally, an example from the partnership between Klaus Janson and Sal Buscema which saw out Gerber's tenure on The Defenders. Once again, Buscema's design is wonderfully clear and informing despite the immensely complex challenge that Gerber had set him. In the foreground we see a huge magnifying glass suspended over the "ant farm" into which both The Defenders and their foe Nebulon have been imprisoned. Beyond that are the full-sized figures of the Headmen, those purposefully absurd and yet fascinatingly repellent villains created from one-off characters found by Gerber in a 1974 Marvel horror reprint title. There's even considerable space left in the design for each of the supervillians to have their say. To Buscema's clarity has been add the richness of Janson's original style, marked by lushness, a great mass of detail and a commitment to making every character and event as distinct and significant as possible. Compared to the beautifully conscientious and strangely still quality of Bob McCleod's inking, to which it has a great many similarities, Janson's collaborations with Buscema created a more dramatic flavour to events. In fact, Janson's inks can seem at times to be trying to reframe Buscema's work in a more intense way than the original layouts will allow for. It's a choice which accentuated the difference between the two men's styles, which is something which McCleod's finishes never did.Yet it's a tension which seems entirely appropriate where Gerber's distinctly weird and yet recognisably 70's Marvel-style work is concerned. For it's a contradictory and energetic quality which reflects Gerber's achievement on the Defenders as a whole. He was, after all, smartly creating tales which were both distinctly of their time and yet invigorating strange too.
Coming next Sunday on "Why Buy?"; The Red Guardian, the most feminist superhero of them all, and Steve Gerber's consistently expressed loathing of racism.