Friday, August 14, 2009

This One's Been Sitting in My Draft Posts for Months...

These days, I'm spending a lot of time reading and re-reading old comics from the 80s and 90s. First of all, they're a hell of a lot cheaper than new comics. For example, I just got a complete run of Eclipse Magazine off Ebay for 99 cents plus shipping. On top of that, many of these comics are as good as, if not better than, the vast majority of what's being published today. I'm especially enjoying comics published by Eclipse, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, Caliber and Pacific Comics.

One of my favorite series was Vanguard Illustrated, a short-lived sci-fi heavy anthology from the equally short-lived Pacific Comics, published from 1983 to 1984. Vanguard only lasted seven issues, but it gave many talented artists a showcase relatively free of editorial shackles, with some of the highest production values available at the time, and the results were often impressive. I recently re-read this series to see how well the whole thing stood the test of time, and while many of the stories don't seem quite as innovative as I remembered them, the artwork is still exceptional.

First of all, Vanguard, like so many of the anthology comics of the period, featured some incredibly beautiful, cheesecake "damsels in space" covers. The three below are my favorites, but they're all good. The first is by Dave Stevens, whose classic Rocketeer debuted in Pacific's other anthology, Pacific Presents (which is also excellent, and includes the "Missing Man" stories by Steve Ditko), the second is by Al Williamson, and the third is by Michael Kaluta.

The highlight of the series was the three part "Freakwave" story by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy which appeared in the first three issues. The futuristic tale is set in an ecologically devastated ocean-world where survivors live on man-made islands and boats. The story focuses on the Drifter, a loner seeking revenge against a pirate who wronged him. Milligan's prose is suitably gritty and note perfect in its descriptions of this ravaged and savage world, but the real attraction is McCarthy's astoundingly imaginative artwork.

McCarthy's use of color was revolutionary at the time, as was his ability to distort and exaggerate perspectives. This psychedelic panel above is just one incredible example.

The sheer imagination that McCarthy put into world-building was like a firehose to the eyeballs. Each panel is rich with technicolor details and beautifully imagined dystopias (Kevin Costner's Waterworld was accused of stealing designs).

In certain places, McCarthy also used rune-like symbols and oddly misshapen panels to enhance the futuristic and "freaky" tone of the story.

McCarthy's character designs are like manic eye candy, dense with bizarre, esoteric details. Check out the ridiculously over-the-top "Mickey Death" panel above. In the future world of "Freakwave," brutes wear artificial horns with hanging pez dispensers, and huge road signs on their chests.

The only disappointment in this story was the cop-out ending, which was controversial with fans as evidenced in the letters pages of later issues, but Milligan and McCarthy would rectify this situation by returning to the world of "Freakwave" again in Strange Days, which was published by Eclipse Comics (who assumed publishing duties for many of Pacific's comics after the company folded).

Vanguard Illustrated also featured a couple above average short stories written by newcomer David Campiti (who later went on to co-found Innovation Publishing) and illustrated by Tom Yeates (one of the most under-appreciated artists in comics). "Libretto," in issue #1, focused on the concept of a planet's gender, an interesting idea that worked very well in this short piece. Yeates' detailed linework (with inks by Rick Bryant) is reminiscent of Wally Wood and Al Davidson, and would have fit perfectly into an issue of Weird Science Fantasy.

"Be It What It Will, I'll Go To It Laughing," Campiti and Yeates' other story (which appeared in the third issue) is a loving homage to Ray Bradbury and several other science fiction writers, and while the story itself is a little erratic and hard to follow in places, Yeates' artwork, especially his figure drawing, is reminiscent of Hal Foster in its stunning photo-realistic detail. Interestingly, Bradbury wrote a letter proclaiming that the story had him "in tears."

The series also featured "Encyclopedias," an early four-part collaboration between Mike Baron and Steve Rude, the award-winning team that went on to create Nexus. I actually enjoyed this story quite a bit. It's a clever, comedic twist on the dystopian future genre - a rookie encyclopedia salesman is dropped into a suburban hellzone with the mission to sell or die.

This panel below is an example of just how talented Rude was right out of the gate. His fight scenes are full of dramatic energy, yet somehow remain grounded and natural!

Baron also wrote another story called "Quark" which appeared in the fourth and fifth issues. It was a fairly generic superhero story with some nice artwork by newcomer Rick Burchett (and great pastel colors by Marcus David), but when Vanguard was cancelled, the story was left unfinished.

The series also included several other random short stories of varying quality. In most cases, the stories were generally forgettable, but most, if not all, featured above average artwork. Here are a few of the many highlights:

"Legends of the Stargazers" (issue #2) - This story, also by Campiti, is silly and kind of hard to follow, but I really liked Bob McLeod's illustrations of over-the-top fantasy mixed with space women in lingerie.

"Adventures in Art" (issue #5) - Rick Geary contributed a couple of excellent short strips that were pre-cursors to his later work in Eclipse Magazine, Cheval Noir and many other anthologies.

"A Tangled Web" (issue #4) - I really liked this creepy little horror story about a grandmother stealing her granddaughter's body. It was written and illustrated by one Ruth Raymond, who unfortunately, to my knowledge, hasn't done any other comics.

"The God Run" (issue #6) - In addition to "Freakwave," Peter Milligan also wrote an excellent little short story about space madness, which featured dynamic art and colors by George Freeman (co-founder of Digital Chameleon coloring and inking studio).

"The Struggle's End" (issue #6) - Rex W. Lindsey, who would later go on to work on numerous Archie books, contributed two highly imaginative stories featuring some visionary artwork.

"The Trains Belong To Us" (issue #6) - George Perez illustrations for Joey Cavaleri's silent four-page, short story about teenage vampires are among some of his best.

"Doc Stearn...Mr. Monster" (issue #7) - Finally, many people may not realize this, but the seventh and final issue of Vanguard Illustrated featured the first appearance of the cult-classic character, Mister Monster, by Michael T. Gilbert and William Loebs.

In the big picture, I know Vanguard Illustrated may not be the best anthology published during the early days of the alt-comix movement. Eclipse Magazine and Eclipse Monthly, Taboo, Anything Goes, Crisis, Cheval Noir, Prime Cuts, Drawn and Quarterly and, of course, Raw, are all probably better in terms of the overall volume of quality content they published. But Vanguard Illustrated is a great little title with lots of hidden gems that make these issues worth tracking down.

1 comment:

Rob Clough said...

Interesting stuff, Marc. I miss the mainstream anthologies of the 80s. I had never heard of Vanguard, so it was surprising to see such an array of interesting artists (Rick Geary and George Perez in the same magazine is something that would never happen now in a million years!)