Best Action on the Planet
by Will Allred (05/31/1999)
I've been reading comics for quite a few years, and it's time I admitted it…I love 'em. Get your minds out of the gutters, I mean I love the medium. Its potential is limitless, and many of the stories that I've read over the years help shape the man that I have become (although my wife might argue that I'm still a child). Anyway, out of all of the stories that I've read over the years, one character stands above all others as my favorite even though it's been years since his series' cancellation. This would , of course, be Marvel's Quasar, Protector of the Universe, part-time Avenger, and just all-around darn cool cosmic character. By the way, for a quick bio, check out his Character Database Entry. I've been very lucky in that I've been able to interview some of the creators that worked on the series like Mike Manley, Steve Lightle, and, now, John Heebink. John sat down with me and talked about his current work on Wrathbone and Bitchula, how he got started, and, of course, Quasar.
Allred: Let's begin at the beginning, when and where did you get your start in comics.
Heebink: I came into the comics business mainly by assisting Mike Manley, first on things like "Raggedy Ann" coloring books and then some time later, after he'd gotten back into comics (and not long after he was working on Quasar), he had me drawing occasional background figures, backgrounds and ultimately tightening up some pencils on Darkhawk and the fourth issue of X-O Manowar and various things. I should point out that tightening up Mike's layouts is little more than a formality, because he blue-pencils the stuff so tightly.
Another good friend, Ricardo Villagrán, gave me some of my earliest paid assisting work on titles like Evangeline, Airboy, and Star Trek.
I think the first time I got my work in print with a credit line was on Vox, Aaron McClellan's b/w book for Apple Comics (anybody remember them?). I later requested Aaron to ink Quasar after the Day brothers rode rough-shod over my pencils around issue 55. That was the issue with Hyperion fighting Gladiator; it was the one time I can recall that I knew I'd really delighted Mark with the super-hero action. I can't stand looking at those pages and have sold most of them, thanks to the ham-fisted inking. I was spoiled by Ralph Cabrera. That guy is skilled!
Anyway, Marvel offered Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Mike in '92. He was full up as usual and couldn't take the job but he referred Editor Mike Rockwitz to me. Nick Fury was long my favorite Marvel character, so I was thrilled when Rockwitz approved my samples for it.
Allred: From here you went on to pencil Quasar. What was working with Mark Gruenwald on my absolute favorite hero in the universe like?
Heebink: I don't recall having a lot of interaction with Mark. I would only call him with questions when I was really unclear on something and knew it. I guess I'm just reticent that way. Probably because he was a nice guy and respected Rockwitz' authority as editor, I didn't ever perceive his hand interfering with the art. Readers might not really realize how much leeway pencillers have working in the Marvel way. Maybe even more so in the early '90s. Mark was respectful of that too, I think. Having seen, in Marvel Age, one of Mark's super-perceptive critiques of art, I feel I could have benefited sometimes from a little well-placed "interference," but I didn't seek it out.
Mark may have really hated that I ditched that bi-level "mullet" hairdo that Quasar had; but he never questioned what I did or why I changed it. (Since Wendell was basically a hip young guy working in New York 1993, I wanted to give him a haircut that would fit that. The mullet was 180 degrees off. In retrospect, I might have chosen better, but I still was glad I got rid of the haircut he had.) One thing that made working on Quasar a good experience for a neophyte was that Mark, perhaps because he was an artist himself, made very professional plots. He was scrupulous about not putting too much on a page. That counts for a lot when you have a book with as many guest stars as Quasar often had. On the pages with huge crowds of super-heroes, he'd only spec two or three panels.
I think that for me, the peak Quasar experience came pretty early. My third issue, #53 I think, with Adam Warlock was my favorite. My figure work was getting better and there are some pretty good expressions and "acting" in there. A friend of mine, Scott Cohn (of Action Planet Comics), gave me some fine layout assistance that contributed to the acting. I thought it was one of Mark's most personal, natural-sounding dialoguing jobs and later got to tell him in person how much I liked it. Also, he gave me stuff to draw that seemed to bring out the best in me. I thought the ethical dilemmas Warlock posed were interesting as well as hugely visual, and spoke to Quasar's essence as a thinking, ethical hero. It was one more terrific ink job by Ralph Cabrera. Unfortunately, it was his last. He was pulled off, into that mess of a cross-over. I can't even remember what it was it called-Starblast or something, I think.
Quasar obviously mirrored Mark as a Midwestern guy who was thoughtful and ethical--a decent, standup guy who took his responsibilities seriously. In hindsight, that is probably not a blueprint for an intrinsically fascinating character, at least to an mostly adolescent readership whose main desire is to reject authority. That puts a burden on the writer to devise situations that really confront Quasar's fundamental nature in a high-stakes way. When Mark did that, Quasar was a gripping book. Issue #53 was like that. But sometimes the book bogged down with creating reasons to shuffle through all the second and third-string guest stars. For me as a reader, that 's not very interesting. But as a penciller, it was exciting to get to draw the assortment of characters I did. I feel especially lucky that I got to draw Kirby-designed characters like Black Bolt, Ikaris, Captain America, and I guess that would include Spider-man. Those Kirby costume designs are so bold and cool-looking. They work so much better than other guys'. I can't explain it. They're more integral to themselves or something. I was also lucky that I got to draw Quasar after they'd finally arrived at a really cool costume. Still, I always admired the ingenuity with which Quasar would think rather than fight his way out of a situation.
Do you remember the drawing of Quasar that was in the little box on the cover? When Rockwitz let me replace the Andy Smith one, I replaced it with one I began by tracing an Erik Larsen drawing from the Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Always steal from the best... I made his head a little too low, though.
For my money, the Quasar artist for the ages is Greg Capullo. He's a very talented guy who was just finding his legs during Quasar. Unfortunately his strengths were hidden by bad printing and, until Harry Candelario came along, bad inking. But he saw Quasar through my favorite, most dramatic, epic story-line, "Cosmos in Collision," in grand fashion. That was probably the only time we saw Capullo's natural style, because he soon adopted Image trappings on the X book he did and then dumbed-down his art and dumbed up the level of detail for his long stint on Spawn. I also really liked Mike Manley's Mignolaesque story about the foot race through space. I had no improvements to offer as the artist of the later, dispiriting rehash of that enjoyable issue.
When I look back on my work on Quasar, I'm proud of #53 and scattered moments of my work throughout. Too often my figures are stiff, the head sizes variable and often too small. I think there's a humanity to the faces that is distinctive. But often I'm just showing how feeble my grasp of the super-hero idiom is. The lettering, coloring, printing and inking - other than Cabrera's -- are all…uhmm…not ideal. At the time I began my Quasar work, it was slated to be canceled. Had Mark and I been able to pull off a miracle and turn sales around (and as the penciller, I had perhaps more chance than anyone to create a splash and bring new readers), obviously it would have kept going. But as with S.H.I.E.L.D., which I entered under similar circumstances, I was not up to it. A glib, flashy, over-detailed style might have helped--and been totally out of keeping with the tone of Mark's writing and my personality. So the last few issues, aside from the "Starblast" stuff, are Mark wrapping things up with the knowledge that the book would end at #60. In light of that, I was puzzled by Mark's choice to reduce Quasar to a bystander in his own book, as in the Hype-Glad battle, the foot race retread, etc. Part of what Mark was doing, at least in the Her/Kismet vs. Paragon match-up, was setting the stage for the next book, "Quantum Force" or some such ,that, as I recall, was to place Quasar on a team (for that X flavor?) in space. Her/Kismet was to have been one of the team, and maybe Franklin Richards. I can't recall what other characters. Greg Wright was to have written it, and bless his flinty heart, he was already haranguing the artist to follow my barefooted redesign of Kismet! By the time I heard about this book, I think they'd offered it to some other artist. I'd never heard a word of criticism from Mark, but I kind of wish I had. In, say, a college class, you don't know what the prof wants till he grades your first paper, but after that you're not flying blind. Did I ask Mark how I was doing at some point, and get some vague, reassuring answer? Probably so, but I don't remember. Rockwitz, who had given me helpful, sometimes face-saving critiques on S.H.I.E.L.D., was pleased with what I was doing on Quasar, but he didn't have the fondness for Quaze that he did for Fury, so he may have cared less.
Anyway, I think Greg had creative differences with Rockwitz et al and left the job. Some post-Quasar Quasar comic came out that was a big reworking of what Greg was doing and promptly stiffed. I recall seeing that Quasar had grown his hair back (maybe with the help of Kayla's Star Brand?), that Kismet didn't have my shoeless costume and that the art looked poor. Speaking of Kayla, I used model Kim Alexis as a rough model for my version of the wholesome Kayla. But going back to what I was saying about the final few issues, one could easily get the impression that Mark had run out of things to say about the character, till you recall that Wendell essentially is Mark. Then the late-innings sidelining of Quasar seems doubly confounding. It's a little tempting to speculate about how this could reflect on Mark's feelings about himself in his lofty (thus isolated, perhaps?) position at Marvel, an organization which was becoming ever more of an overheated snake pit at the time he died. But I didn't know Mark well enough to presume to guess. I do know that I was struck at the downbeat, anti-romantic ending, with Quasar flying tearfully into space, having decided to leave his family forever behind. It didn't really seem in character to me. What's your read on that?
Allred: I'd have to agree with you there. The ending doesn't sit well with me. He just gives up and leaves. It goes against that never quit attitude that Mark had developed in ol' Quaze since the beginning. Sure, he'd occasionally think about quitting, but he would always come through in the end. And you're right, it was an extremely depressing way to go out, especially since the rest of the series was generally so optimistic and upbeat. Of course, these are just this fans musings, and I could muse for pages, but this is your interview, so let's get back to you. Where did your work show up next? Was it the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers?
Heebink: I think so. Somewhere in there I did an issue of Eek! the Cat for the same publisher (Hamilton), which came out great. And I started drawing Elvira, and then some other Claypool things like Soulsearchers & Co. at some point thereafter. That was the only job I ever got with a cold submission, I think. I have a poor memory. I sound like I'm recalling events from fifty years ago. But if that were the case, I'd be claiming credit for a lot of work I didn't do myself, but I'm a decent Midwestern guy, too, and we don't go in for that sort of thing, even if it is an industry tradition.
Allred: Eventually, you landed over on Action Planet, Mike Manley's company, doing your own creator owned series, right?
Heebink: Why, bless you! I did indeed! Mike, after years of not having his story suggestions being taken seriously, of often not getting to ink his own work, of getting too-frequent crummy lettering jobs, or crummy coloring jobs, decided to get Action Planet going. He invited Phil Hester, Ande Parks, Bret Blevins, Ricardo Villagrán and some guy named Ordway along. We all got the chance to try our wings as solo creators, make our own mistakes. It's great; it frees you to do your best work.
Our full-color Giant-Size Action Planet Halloween Special, which came out (ahem) the second week of December -- that's on-time in the Action Planetverse! -- has an incredible lineup that adds Bill Wray and Jason Armstrong. And we've got a b/w APC Twisted Love Special coming out within just months of Valentine's Day next year, with guys like Dave Cooper, Mike Vosburg, Peter Krause, Chris Garbutt, my jack-of-all-trades Elvira editor Richard Howell, my pals Kieron Dwyer and Nick Bertozzi added to the mix. This one's our first for mature readers. It's gonna be really entertaining.
Readers can check out www.actionplanet.com for the gooey details.
The APC strip I do is called "Wrathbone and Bitchula." It's about a big, amiable hairy creature and the fiery sexpot he fancies. But really I've used the strip mostly to mock various groups that evoke my ire in real life: ultra-pc lefty zealots and right-wing fundamentalist nutballs, so far. It's pretty funny, I think, and Bitchula is fun to look at. It's taken a while, because I get to work on "Wrathbone and Bitchula" so infrequently, but from the start I've planned to open the story out into a big S.H.I.E.L.D-style melee, but with groups having articulatable goals -- fanatic of course, but articulatable.
I find almost all comic books uninteresting to me. Sometimes it's partly because they're so dumb about, and uninterested in, any interactions above the level of individuals. It's probably the result of being about heroes, which tends to mean lone heroes to some degree. Most guys in the field write like they've never had a real job or seen an organization at work. Like with Hydra. How did an organization whose leader was constantly executing his underlings secure loyalty? That never made sense to me. Were there some great retirement benefits, or profit sharing? It frustrated me that there were no real institutional aims or philosophy for Hydra apart from Von Strucker's desire to foment chaos to see who would survive. Where's the percentage in that? A kid can be satisfied with bad guys who only exist to oppose (and be defeated by) the good guys, but in the real world "bad guys" think they're doing good, even if it's just about lining their own pockets. So at the least there's an economic motive that makes sense and is more interesting than, "I'll get you next time, you accursed Avenger" or whatever.
Well. Anyway. Mostly Action Planet is about control: writing and drawing what we want to draw in the way we want to draw it. For everyone but our big-hearted Editor-Publisher, it's sheer self-indulgence. And a lot of fun to read, according to the people that come up to us at conventions.
Allred: Sounds like a blast! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and good luck with Wrathbone and Bitchula.
If you'd like to see more of John's work surf over to Action Planet Comics at www.actionplanet.com. And, if you'd like more information about Quasar, check out the Quantum Zone at www.quantumzone.org and, as always, Avengers Assemble at www.avengersassemble.us/ is a great place to find out about any Avenger, including Quasar.