Monday, June 22, 2015

Earl Norem, the King of Adventure Sleaze!

The great Earl Norem passed away last weekend, at 92. Norem was the top illustrator of the adventure sleaze mags of the Fifties and Sixties. The newsstands were full of these rags, which paired junk fiction of the lowest brow with provocative large illustrations of busty, scantily clad babes engaged in various acts of over-the-top violence.

The publisher of most this marvelous trash was none other than Martin Goodman, who was also the founder and publisher of Marvel Comics. Comic books were low-profit enterprises back then. The big money was in porn, and this was the foundation of Goodman's vast publishing empire His son, Chip, held on to the porn mags long after the family foolishly sold Marvel, finally selling the last ones in 1993, just before the internet wiped out the titty mags.

Norem began painting for Goodman's magazine line when he returned from WWII. He was prolific and fast. Working in acrylic paint, he provided hundreds of covers and double-page illustrations for softcore sleaze mags like Stag, Men's Life and Men.

Before internet porn, teenagers had to go to great lengths to score masturbatory material. If a boy couldn't steal girlie mags from his old man, he had to make do with whatever newsdealers would sell him. Goodman recognized this lucrative untapped market, and thus was the adventure sleaze magazine created.


The big selling point of these rags were the illustrations of bodacious babes, as uncovered as Goodman could get away with. Imagine how many thousands of teenage horndogs drooled over the "Man Hungry Nymph Who Stole Red China's Secret Super-MIG"! Goodman no doubt paid Norem more for the paintings than he did for the stories themselves!

My introduction to Norem came much later, in the Seventies, when he became the go-to cover artist for Marvel's magazine line, which featured titles like Monsters Unleashed, Dracula Lives and The Savage Sword of Conan. Goodman was long gone, as were the adventure sleaze mags. Marvel put out a dozen magazines a month to try to grab some of competitor Warren's audience. Marvel's publisher was now Stan Lee, and he recognized that Warren's covers often sold the magazine, which frankly, were full of less than stellar material. Warren shelled out top dollar for the covers of Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella by A-list talent like Frazetta, Jeff Jones and Richard Corben. Marvel couldn't (or more likely, wouldn't) pay for that kind of muscle, but here was old friend Earl Norem, waiting in the wings.

I didn't much care for his Marvel mag covers, to be honest. But they led me back to the work of his sleaze mag heyday and that stuff simply blew me away. I found piles of them at Kay's Books in downtown Cleveland, priced for a few cents each.

Norem's death reminded me that he also painted the cover for The Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978. Or, rather, he re-drew (or, I guess, re-painted) the original Jack Kirby cover. Above left is the Kirby original, later inked and colored by parties unknown. To the right, is Norem's reinterpretation. It's a pity he is associated with this book, the backstory of which is one of the saddest tales in Marvel history.

This was one of the first original GNs. It came out the same year as Eisner's Contract With God, commonly considered the first original graphic novel. It's not, but it was Eisner who coined the term "graphic novel," for better or worse, and jumpstarted the current GN Golden Age we all now enjoy.

The Silver Surfer
GN is a tepid re-hash of Kirby's original Surfer-Galactus story that was such a cult hit a decade earlier, and which Stan desperately clung to as proof that he could actually write (he couldn't), even though, of course, he DIDN'T write the original FF Trilogy. Kirby did. Lee just filled in the word balloons with hokey dialogue, based on Kirby's detailed margin notes.

The Silver Surfer was the first book Stan "wrote" since 1971 when he was promoted to Marvel publisher. It came on the heels of his infamous Origin of Marvel Comics, where Lee first made the outrageous claim that he was the sole creator of all the great Marvel characters, a brazen lie that infuriated Kirby.

The Silver Surfer GN is a soapy weeper, minus the FF, and with an added romantic interest (!) and a cosmic sex scene (!!) with Stan, as usual, striving mightily to be deep, and failing spectacularly. It's Lee at his absolute worst and his dialogue is even worse than usual. It's better than the Surfer comic book series, thanks to Jack. Not a high bar, since those Surfer book are the dreariest of the Silver Age, a turgid mess of a series, with Stan fucking up a cult hit with tiresome allegories as obvious as a hammer blow to the head. The actual politics behind those allegories are totally mainstream and craven. It's Stan, the middle-aged cool dad trying to "rap with kids." When the book was mercifully canceled by Martin Goodman, Stan bawled endlessly about how brilliant it was, and that it failed commercially because, although college kids loved it, the stupid 11-year-old readers just didn't "get it." He repeats this fantasy to this day. No Stan. Your Silver Surfer wasn't too deep. It just sucked.

This GN is the final "collaboration" between Lee and Kirby. It's not a great book, although the art is Jack's best of his late period. Lee & Kirby bickered throughout, with Lee audaciously demanding changes to the art. Kirby's second Marvel contract ended with this, and, fed up with Lee's lies and shameless gloryhogging, and tired of being denied the compensation he so deserved, he would never work again for the company he essentially created. The Marvel Age ended right here, with the publication of the Surfer GN. So, too, did my interest in mainstream comics.

Norem's cover here is a dud. The combo of a Norem painting over a Kirby layout doesn't work at all! Guess Lee, typically, felt the cover needed more of a "book" feel than Kirby could provide, so his hokey doggeral could be "properly" showcased. Wrong call again, Stan!

I remember buying this at the chain bookstore in the mall. You never saw comix in regular bookstores then, so it really stood out. I also remember thinking, man, this cover sucks.

I prefer to remember Norem at his best.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

CAKE this weekend!

Chicago's big alt-comix showcase is this weekend, Sat & Sun, at the the Center on Halstead. I'll be tabling and paneling. I'll have a full array of books and original art. Stop on by!

Just returned from New York City and the first promo for the new TRASHED graphic novel. Here's the cheap promo review copy of the book. And this one is really an uncorrected proof. No color, rotten paper, no editing or corrections at all. Little leery of letting something this rough circulate, but Abrams wanted something for Book Expo, the book industry's big trade show. 

The Abrams booth. Very cozy.

Hovering overhead, Abrams' gold seam. That's right, bitches, I've got  Wimpy Kid money behind me!

At the Abrams' garden dinner party. 

I was on a graphic novel panel with three other creators. Completely different works aimed at completely different age groups. Nice crowd. One woman, a librarian, helpfully pointed out that there already was a book about being a garbageman, released in 2013. I responded with an evil grin that my first garbage stories were published eleven BEFORE that, in 2002, and then again as a webcomic in 2009 and 2010. Wotta asshole. What was that about? Trying to embarrass somebody in a public forum?

Did a signing at the Abrams pod afterwards. Maybe 20 people lined up to get signed copies of the shitty review copy. Reflexively, I add a drawing to the title page, along with my signature, just like I do in Europe, where it's expected. The Abrams folks stared at me in disbelief. "You're doing a DRAWING???" my handler asked, in shock. "It's no problem," I answered, and it wasn't. I'm still putting the finishing touches on this book and after 6 months of marathon drawing, I'm in peak form. Besides, it was only 20 people and I've signed for 100 at single stops in France! But word spread fast, and the line grew to 30 and stayed there as more joined it. Still no problem, but the Abrams folks were freaking out. "We don't want you to hurt your hand!" Hilarious.

After an hour, they shooed everyone away. Cracked me up. But hit me up at CAKE and you'll get a drawing. No TRASHED yet– it's out in the Fall– you'll have to wait for SPX and NY Comicon for that.