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Friday, August 7, 2015

Panel Vision - Top 10 Tales to Astonish Covers

Edited by Robert Beach 

I love comic book covers. That shouldn’t come as a major surprise to people, I review comic books on 2 different geek websites and manage my own geek blog with a specific subset of blog post dedicated to comic books; however, I’ve concluded that’s not quite enough comic book worship to fully express my love, so I’ve decided that every other Saturday I'm going to post a listicle of great comic book covers. 

Partly this is because, as I mentioned, I love comic book covers, so this is a pretty easy way to produce content quickly.  Starting out with top 10 Tales to Astonish covers, specifically because I reviewed an issue of Groot earlier this week, and this is the comic in which he first appeared.  With that said, let’s begin.  

Tales to Astonish was one of Marvel’s first major comic efforts. As a result Tales to Astonish ends up a very bizarre blend of ‘50s style sci-fi weirdness and b-movie aesthetics rendered by artists who would go on to be legends of the genre. Tales to Astonish #10 comes to us courtesy of Gene Colan and Jack Kirby; that’s why the artwork looks like such a bizarre combination of silver age-energized blockiness and ‘70s splash pages. It’s actually pretty clear that this covers from two different people because nothing about the geography of this scene makes sense. 

Titano’s massive lurking head in the foreground is somehow destroying a bridge that was positioned directly in front of a pier for whatever reason. I also love that Titano is twisting his claws around to grab at the construction site. I know it seems like I don’t like this cover, but regardless of all the whacky perspective stuff, this is still a striking and memorable image.  It’s really easy to see why both Colan & Kirby would go on to legendary status in the comics industry.  

This cover is also listed as Jack Kirby art, but I don’t have the original comic to confirm the cover was all his work; the Krogarr monster itself looks like classic Kirby: the bulky arm, the uniquely rocky texture on the face and arms that’s reminiscent of the Thing. This is classic Kirby artwork; however, the rest of the cover doesn’t look nearly as a Kirby-esque, especially the man Krogarr is threatening to abduct. What I really love about this cover is the idea of it. 

The concept of this giant monster somehow emerging out of a television set is thoroughly ‘50s. It’s the kind of thinking that tended to pepper a lot of junky, low-rent sci-fi of the decade. It’s similar to the thinking behind stuff like how “Nuclear power” did whatever the writer wanted because normal folks didn’t understand it. I especially like the color work on Krogarr; the red and yellow tones make it seem like he really did come from some alien spectrum of reality.

This is actually the 1st issue of Tales to Astonish and is attributed to John Buscema. Buscema is one of the great under-appreciated Gods of comic book art, especially during Marvel’s heyday of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His work as the main artist on The Avengers, Silver Surfer, Conan the Barbarian, Fantastic Four, and Thor, though it’s said he drew at least one story of nearly every major Marvel comic. 

What’s more, a lot of his cover work is so excellent it honestly puts Jack Kirby to shame. Seriously, all the best comic book covers of the ‘60s come from John Buscema. While an earlier example of his work, Tales to Astonish #1 still holds a lot of the key elements that would make him great, mainly the crisp focus and tones down line work. I really like the stark single image that defines the page and the clean, fluid lines. Additionally, it’s a pretty weird concept, a King Kong reimagining only starring American Gamera as the monster.   

Another one from the Colan/Kirby camp, though this one looks decidedly more Colan in the details. The slime monsters lurching form, the design of the hands is classic Kirby, and the blocky finger edges are basically a signature. Although, the detail is much more in Colan’s wheelhouse, more so the dripping mud aesthetic.  It reminds me a lot of some of Colan’s later work on various Marvel horror titles as he always leaned more towards classical monster designs compared to Kirby’s space age reimagining of classical fantasy. 

As to the content, I admit I’m a sucker for mud monsters. This was always going to make it on the list. I also really like the framing of the shot. It’s not just Monstrom that dwarfs the humans in this cover the entire Black Swamp seems to just rise up around them. The way the trees are depicted as impossibly tall, blending into the cover masthead, is a very eerie way of enclosing the characters in this world.

Kirby again features the Abominable Snowman. Like Monstrom, I mainly chose this cover because I am a huge fan of Yetis, Sasqautches, Big Foot, and Abominable Snowmen, so I showcase them pretty much any chance I get. What I really like about the cover is Kirby’s design of the monster’s face. Kirby had a tendency to create faces with a very chiseled and craggy look to them, even people like Reed Richards or Captain America (who were meant to be less rough) couldn’t escape the bold definition of Kirby’s line work. 

In this case, he swaps that approach for a very soft facial structure relying more on the color and inking to indicate the face.  It’s a bold move and pays off well as this is one of the more striking and memorable yeti designs I’ve seen. It’s an interesting contrast to the equally animalistic Krogarr, who was realized in a manner more reminiscent of Kirby’s standards like The Thing or Lockjaw. 

My sources attribute this cover to Jack Kirby and John Buscema, but honestly it’s Buscema cover more than anything else. A lot of the giveaway comes from the very curving design of Mummex, if you look you can see he doesn’t feature any hard angles or firm corners, which was more Kirby’s approach. What really sells this cover is just the ingenuous idea of it all. 

There were plenty horror and weird tales comics that featured mummies back in the day, so the idea of doing a giant-sized mummy kaiju is damn ingenuous and creates a very striking image. I think my favorite part is how creepy Mummex’ eyes look. It would’ve been easy to have them as just vacant black holes, but somehow the fact he has these gigantic humanoid eyes set in this creepy, mute creature make him all the freakier. 
And here it is: the first issue to ever feature Groot. How far he has come. As you can see, Groot was initially conceived as a more erudite monster and an alien invader, to say nothing of being giant sized. It’s strange; even before Tales to Astonish became Ant-Man’s comic book, the series maintained a strange obsession with size. Despite the purposefully vague title to accommodate any range of weird science or bizarre supernatural stories, the writers and artists kept coming back to giant monsters. 

In a way, it turned out to be a blessing because the reliance on that format forced them to get really creative with the Kaiju they threw at the reader. I really like how, with Groot, the main threat seems to come from his extended root system. This is another Jack Kirby cover as should be obvious from the rough angles on Groot’s face and hands.  Who would’ve though this mostly forgotten comic Kirby had created yet another iconic character? 

Believe it or not, this is technically Ant-Man’s first appearance. At this point, Tales to Astonish had existed for well over a couple of years, and Marvel was trying out strange and ingenuous new things with its anthology comics; additionally, The Incredible Shrinking Man had just come out a couple years before, so I get the sense the folks at Marvel were hoping to ape its style and popularity. 

I love how Kirby imagined ants for this cover: the hatred in their beady little eyes, the bizarre sea monkey-like hands, and the fact they are apparently lime green. Ant-Man wouldn't appear in his properly realized form for another 8 issue, but this is still technically the first time we saw Hank Pym and his size-changing formula, just without the ability to control the ants who would become his greatest allies.
This is what I mean when I say Tales to Astonish’s gigantism fixation made them really creative. I love the idea that this creature, the Blip, somehow actually has a broad, white border to its body in real life. This is one of the most imaginative and out-there depictions of an electric monster I’ve ever seen. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the DC comics character Cie-Yu, a thunderbolt genie in the service of Golden Age hero Johnny Thunder mixed with an element of the Hulk villain Zzzax only infinitely more striking and memorable. 

I think what really pushes The Blip over the edge is the color work as black is actually a super rare color to see applied to a lightning monster like this creature. Once again, this bizarre mesh of horrifying reality with cartoon visuals comes to us from Jack Kirby as mostly evident by the insane amount of sharp angles that make up the Blip. Honestly, the Blip reminds me a lot of a proto-version of The Thing: a character so strange looking and grounded in 2-dimensional realization you couldn’t even begin to adapt it to a 3D setting.   

One more giant Kirby monster to finish things off.  Jack Kirby drawing Easter Island heads is almost too perfect a combination for words. His style has always been heavily imitative of statues and sculptures with all the sharp edges and firm lines; that’s part of why one of his most iconic character designs is a rock man. The Easter Island Heads are so in Kirby’s visual wheelhouse I have to wonder if he wasn’t always trying to replicate them in some manner. 

Whatever the reason, he was so drawn to this particular style it works perfectly here, and the idea the heads have entire giant stone bodies beneath them is pretty wild.  I especially like the foreground giants in this picture; the ones that seem to be eerily milling about through the jungle. It makes them seem almost more menacing in that they aren’t actively pursuing a purpose we can even fathom, like at any moment they might just stomp us out of existence. 

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