Monday, January 2, 2012

The Making of "Manhunter from Mars #200"

Okay, this is an especially fun installment for me. Once I had decided I would continue doing the fake "Manhunter from Mars" covers every fifty posts for the first year or so, I knew James P. Starlin was getting one. Jim Starlin was my first "fan favorite" creator growing up, as I was introduced to him in my pre-school days by an otherwise absentee uncle who was also a fan. Thankfully, he left me with lots of old "Strange Tales" and "Warlock" issues, as well as some "Captain Marvel," leading me to buy "Dreadstar and Company" when that hit the newsstand. Starlin not only influenced my formative imagination, but my very being. The musings in his work regarding religion, politics, identity, mortality and more shape my worldview to this very day. Plus, y'know, he drew a totally boss Martian Manhunter.

"Manhunter from Mars #150" was supposed to have been released in the winter of 1976 on an irratic/bimonthly schedule, so I could have dated "#200" whenever I wanted after late 1980. I decided to take the DC Bullet, price box, CCA seal and UPC code from a dinky GCD scan of Adventure Comics #479 in March 1981. This was the issue that debuted a revival of "Dial "H" For Hero," the feature that permanently pushed the Manhunter from Mars out the cover slot and into the back-up position in "House of Mystery." The revival ran for less than a year, and saw Adventure Comics cancelled a few months later. "H" only ran two years in "HoM" before it and Manhunter were dumped for anthology horror stories. Stick that in your H-Dial and smoke it.

Once the "publishing date" had been decided, it seemed like the best time to use Starlin material had arrived. Since I was more careful about plausiblity at this point, it made sense that Starlin would work on a "lesser" character between the failure of the "Warlock" series and his creative resurgence with the first Marvel Comics graphic novel, "The Death of Captain Marvel." Further, his long run on "Dreadstar" and switch to writing-only for much of the 80's and 90's made that the sweet spot. Starlin was doing lots of paycheck work for DC then, like covers and odd issues of "DC Comics Presents." In one, he introduced his second Darkseid-derivative villain, Mongul. Reference was made there to his having fought Martian Manhunter in the past, so that seemed like an obvious vein to mine.

Focusing on Mongul first, I realized that even though Starlin had co-created the character, he rarely drew him. Mongul fought Martian Manhunter in his first appearance, so I thought it would be too much of a cheat to just swipe a panel from there. Also, that issue had some really lackluster inks that would have cast both characters and Starlin in a negative light. The cover to the issue was pure Starlin, but has been reproduced many times, and even more of a cheat than swiping a panel. My next option was Mongul's Starlin drawn "Who's Who" entry, which also featured a Martian Manhunter fight, and needed only be colored.

Ultimately, I chose a panel from 1981's DC Comics Presents #36, Mongul's first appearance after the "Warworld" arc, which Starlin provided all the art for. The Steve Ditko incarnation of Starman co-starred with Superman in the issue, and was the body originally in the cube. That's his love, Lady Merria, standing with Mongul. Since Gerry Conway had briefly introduced a love interest for J'onn J'onzz in the story that returned the Martian Manhunter to Earth and the JLA, I decided to retroactively insert her into this "story." I very crudely colored over Merria's Caucasian flesh tone in Microsoft Paint to turn her into "J'en," much of which is still visible in the final product.

I next needed a shot of J'onn J'onzz that would spotlight him on the "cover," would hold up to being heavily reduced to fit him in the cube, would be suitably beaten, and would show off how great Starlin drew him. A battle with Synnar alongside the JLA in 1998's Hardcore Station #6, inked by Josef Rubinstein, did the trick. A white background surrounding the figure didn't hurt, either. I also had to do lousy touch up work on the first drawing to cover where Starman had been. Thank God these are reproduced small.

I had learned from "Manhunter From Mars #100" that the background should always be in the forefront of my mind when constructing a fake cover. Thankfully, I had plenty of Starlin reference to choose from, and he's always been big on starscapes. I finally settled on an extract from a two-page spread from 2004's Thanos #2. There, it was a sort of stilt-house for Galactus, but cropped and recontextualized, I thought it would pass for a new Warworld. That would get me in trouble later.

A problem I had repeatedly before I became mindful of it was correctly establishing the dimensions of a comic book, which adversely affected this piece. The three primary figures had all settled into the bottom quarter of the image, a huge no-no. On the plus side, it gave me plenty of room for Mike Nasser's large and ornate "Manhunter from Mars" logo, but it was still noticeably off. Worse, I'd forgotten about the UPC code, which annihilated any one figure I might have set in before. As an added bonus, I was facing the "Dreaded Deadline Doom." That would plague the project later.

I arrived at my 200th post at a time when I was working a ton of hours at my job. That put me so far behind schedule here that I was literally up half the already-too-short night finishing the art and story. I decided to just move the main figures higher up on the cover, and rather than draw everyone a lower body, cover the difference with the UPC code and cover hype. I was too exhausted to do it right, so it's just a crumby font over a colored box. "J'en's" dialogue balloon was in the original illustration, reading "S-Starman, I--." My illegible alteration was, "Stop! You'll Kill Him! I'll lead you to the Crystal Key!"

Considering the wide variety and range in quality of sources, I needed something to integrate all the disparate elements. I had just begun to play with images in the Nero 7 Ultimate Edition, so this was my first attempt to artificially age a piece of art. I considered throwing some creases in, but settled on some desaturation of color and yellowing of the "paper." It really helped to tone down and mask some aspects that would have otherwise hurt the finished product.

Now the troubling bit-- after all that effort on the cover itself, I really hadn't given much thought to the story I'd attach to it. Unlike previous "anniversary issues," I knew I wanted to focus on the tale rather than bogus "behind the scenes" material, but I was in short supply of focus at the time. Added pressure came from a sudden spike in daily readership from the 70's to the low 200's, a temporary thing likely related to then-recent coverage of Darwyn Cooke's "New Frontier" around the time the DTV animated adaptation came out. At the time, it was a big deal for me, whereas that would now make for a terrible traffic day now.

The cover had "Warworld," "J'enn," and J'onn in a cube, plus I knew I wanted to reveal the untold story of the first Mongul confrontation. So okay, there's a flashback to Mongul's first attempt to steal the Crystal Key needed to control Warworld. J'en's a hostage, J'onn's in a cube. How does he get out? I don't know... I need a period appropriate deus ex machina... Re's Eda! That's the ticket! Re's Eda redeems himself by saving J'onn J'onzz at the cost of his own life! Jim Starlin loves to kill characters, there's your anniversary event, and we're wrapped!

But no! I forgot I'd tied the current "issue," or at least those leading up to it, to a present storyline. Also, since our "date" fell a few months before Mongul's Starman fight, I tried to "lead into it," without actually re-reading the thing! That's when the exhausted rambling kicked in. Somehow, not only does all that flashback material have to fit into the one story, but now I have to add a wholly separate follow-up! Plus, that makes three battles with Martian Manhunter, so I could really hedge his bid for a Vile Menagerie entry! What a moron I was!

The story was a complete hash, and upon later review, I was so embarrassed by the poor quality of my efforts on both the plot and cover construction fronts that I unpublished the whole shebang! The post was set aside for a year before I finally offered an acceptable revised version... be continued...

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