RIP Steve Ditko

One of the key architects of the “Marvel Age of Comics,” Steve Ditko passed away last week at age 90.  I was going to write that he “left us,” but for most of his career he wasn’t really among us, choosing a life of privacy over celebrity, shunning conventions and interviews and earning himself (fairly or not) a reputation as a hermit and recluse, “the JD Salinger of comics.” Unlike his collaborator Stan Lee, who’s basked in the limelight longer than most people have even been alive, Ditko never seemed to feel comfortable in the public eye, preferring to let his work speak for itself.

It certainly spoke to me, and rather against the odds.  Young Me was a DC fan, whereas Ditko’s most notable works were produced for Marvel.  Further, I was a devoted fan of Neal Adams and the “realistic” approach to comic art that took hold in the Bronze Age, whereas Ditko’s style was pretty much the opposite of all that; quirky, cartoony and what you might call “oddball.”  Nonetheless, when I saw his work on “Shade: The Changing Man,” “The Creeper” and one of the million-and-one variations on “Starman,” it was oddly compelling.

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Some time in the late 70s, Pocket Books released a series of paperbacks collecting vintage Marvel comics in vivid color, and for the first time, I had an opportunity to read the earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.  I’d always liked Spidey’s costume and power set, but I was turned off by the never-ending sob story that was Peter Parker’s life by the 1970s.  Nevertheless, I took a chance on these little books and was blown away.

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The earliest Spidey stories, I learned, were inventive, energetic and delightfully quirky.  A lot of that came from Stan Lee’s distinctive flair for witty dialog, but it was Ditko’s art that signaled this was not your average superhero book.  Where other heroes flexed massive chests and biceps and stood around with their fists on their hips, Spidey was a spindly little teenager who moved in spider-like ways that made him equal parts “cool” and “icky.”  He had a degree of super-strength, but he didn’t plant his feet on the ground and deliver haymakers; he did back-flips and somersaults and stood on the ceiling to punch down at you.  And while Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker had problems, they often had a sense of the absurd about them, making the book seem almost like a spoof of the superhero genre.  Unlike Bruce Wayne and a host of other millionaire playboy heroes, Pete had to worry about paying the rent.  Superman had a Fortress of Solitude, but Pete was relegated to a cramped room in his Aunt’s house that afforded little privacy. Batman had a cave full of costumes for every occasion, but Pete had just one and he had to sew it himself.  When he lost it, he had to borrow a copy from a costume shop, only to find it didn’t fit and had to be held together with webbing.  When Ditko left the book, Pete’s problems persisted — and multiplied — but that sense of the absurd left, replaced with soap-opera melodrama.  Pete turned movie-star handsome, pretty girls filled the book and in short order, Spidey was as muscular and hunky as any other superhero.  Everything looked glossy and beautiful, but the soul of the feature was forever altered.

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Those little Pocket Books also introduced me to the earliest adventures of what would become my favorite Marvel character, Dr. Strange.  Dealing with sorcery, demons, nightmares and journeys to dimensions unbound by earthly rules of logic or physics. these stories gave Ditko’s imagination free reign.  Doc’s expressive hand gestures and the swirling, pulsing, crackling light effects they generated created a sort of guidebook for future artists tasked with illustrating “magic.”  His trippy extra-dimensional landscapes were equally definitive; with no “ground” to stand on, characters moved about on pathways that hung in the air like unfurled scarves, meandering at times through the disembodied jaws of serpents to little “islands” that seemed to be melting away like warm ice cream, while the “skies” were filled with spheres sprouting slithering tendrils of who-knows-what.  In Ditko’s hands, landscapes seemed not only alive but predatory.

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Years later, I would buy this material again as a hardbound “Marvel Masterwork,” and then again as a “Marvel Omnibus.” And odds are the next format it’s released in, I’ll buy it again.

When he left Marvel after a dispute that will forever be shrouded in mystery (because he thought it was none of our business, and didn’t care if we were on his side), Ditko went to Charlton Comics long enough to revamp Blue Beetle with a new man behind the mask and a new costume as eye-catching as its predecessor was deadly dull.  Like Spidey’s costume and Strange’s, it remains in use to this day, fully 50 years after Ditko designed it, and despite the fickle tastes of changing fandom.

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Designing enduring costumes was something of a specialty for Ditko.  Somewhere along the way, he also re-imagined Jack Kirby’s clunky, “walking tank” version of Iron Man with the streamlined red-and-gold armor that has survived, with variations, through decades of comics and films.

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In fact it’s fair to say that no matter what “superstar” artist works on Ditko’s creations, whether it’s Spidey or Strange or the Creeper or Blue Beetle or The Question, there always remains some intrinsic “something” that draws a straight line back to the creator.  His fingerprints are unmistakable.

On the flip side, there is also the matter of Ditko’s politics, or maybe I should say his worldview.  As a devoted admirer of Ayn Rand, Ditko’s most personal works reflected his Objectivist beliefs, most notably in the form of his self-owned character “Mr A,” who saw life in black and white with no shades of gray.  In his first story, Mr A refuses to save the life of a villain about to fall to his death, noting that “to have any sympathy for a killer is an insult to their victims.”  To put it mildly, this sort of approach proved divisive in fandom, but it’s pretty clear the mind behind this material isn’t interested in seeking approval from anyone.

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Apparently, Ditko died as he’d lived: alone and in privacy; as much as two days may have passed before anyone realized he’d expired. I can’t help but feel sad about that.  But then, the only way I’d ever “known” him was through his work, stories that are still on my shelf to be pulled down from time to time and be found exactly the way I remember them. So in a way, I guess nothing’s really changed much for me.  But somehow, it was cool to know that holed up in a little apartment somewhere was a genius artist who changed pop culture with his talent, then disappeared because he felt like it; a guy who valued his own personal belief system more than applause and fame. To some folks, that would make him kind of a nut, but then guys who think like the rest of the world are never going to give us something like Spider-Man or Dr Strange.  And even if he wasn’t the type to mingle or grant interviews or show up at premieres of multi-million dollar films based on his creations, he somehow seemed paradoxically “there” all my life.  Knowing that he’s not anymore makes the world feel a little emptier.

Anyway, whatever dimension he’s moved on to, I hope he’s at peace.

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Bat-Signal Over LA

The city of Los Angeles arranged a nice tribute to Adam West yesterday, flashing the bat-signal on the side of City Hall.

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The cool part is they got the symbol right: there have been several iterations over the years, but this one matches the one on West’s costume (on the show, the shape of the projected signal was different, but why quibble?).

What makes it doubly awesome, though, is that LA City Hall doubled for the Daily Planet starting with the second season the old “Adventures of Superman” TV show, making for a cool, if probably unintentional, cross-reference.  Wish I could’ve seen it in person.

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Adam West RIP

batman-mobileThis is shaping up to be one lousy year. Mere weeks after the death of Roger Moore,  I’ve lost another childhood hero, Adam West.

As related in an earlier post, I first encountered Mr West’s Batman in a television airing of the 1966 feature film starring the cast of the TV show.  It’s fair to say it blew it my young mind, with its outlandish sets, gadgets, vehicles and costumes.  It was, in essence, a comic book brought to life.  A couple of years later, the show itself turned up in syndication and watching it became a highlight of my daily routine.

I would’ve been about 9 when I saw the movie, maybe 11 or 12 for the series, so I may or may not have caught on at first that it was all a gag.  Not that it would have necessarily mattered: I knew Get Smart was played for laughs but I still viewed Max as a hero, and when Uncle Arthur put on a Superman costume and flew around the neighborhood on Bewitched, I didn’t think “that’s hilarious” (as the laugh track seemed to encourage) but rather, “Wow, I wish my Superman suit made ME fly.”

Similarly, even if I realized that the central joke of Batman was what a square the caped crusader was — that he was a postmodern lampoon of straight-shooting, tea-totaling heroes like Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger (with a similar delivery) — it wouldn’t have mattered to me.

There’s a really great post at NPR that sums up my own experience with the Adam West Batman; like that author I was a kid devoted to law and order and rule-following.  As a toddler I lectured strangers on the perils of smoking and chastised my grandfather for improperly disposing of litter.  Neighbors said I wouldn’t get out of my pedal car until I’d properly parallel parked it next it to the house.  Naturally I’d be a sucker for a hero who ordered orange juice in a nightclub and refused to start the Batmobile until Robin had fastened his safety bat-belt.

As has been noted endlessly everywhere, Adam West’s portrayal of Batman was aimed at two audiences;  kids who took him deadly serious and their parents who chuckled at his cornball earnestness.  The interesting thing, for me, is that even though in the short run the bread and butter of the show was in that older audience, who after all were the potential customers for the show’s sponsors, in the long run it’s the younger audience that’s defined the show’s legacy.  For years, I’ve frequented a message board devoted to ’66 Batman and its members aren’t the least bit self-conscious about declaring this Batman as their personal hero.  His straight-laced morality may have been the butt of the joke in ’66, but it’s made him a role model to generations.

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I believe this is the genius of West’s approach; it would’ve been easy to aim for full-on comedy with the role and make Batman an utter doofus…and maybe that would’ve helped the actor keep the character enough at arm’s length to have shed the image when the show was canceled…but by adding that layer of earnest sincerity, he ensured the longevity of the show through the younger fans.  Because as sure as we may have been in ’66 — and are today — that we’re above corny ideals like “fair play” and “good citizenship” and the like, the truth is every generation is hungry for heroes who understand there are such things as “right” and “wrong” and are willing to step up and do what’s right.  The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy generation got that kind of hero straight up and without irony.  Kids of the 60s and 70s happily settled for a Batman who was cut from the same cloth even if Mom and Dad did laugh at him.

After the show was cancelled, Adam went through a long rough patch, career-wise, having been typecast as a caped crimefighter at a time when live-action superhero projects were rare as hen’s teeth.  People only wanted to see him as Batman, so with a family to feed he packed up the cape and cowl in a traveling case and made the rounds of car shows, county fairs and mall openings, playing the Caped Crusader well into middle-age.  In the time-honored tradition of kicking a guy while he’s down, he was mercilessly parodied for this and held up as a kind of cautionary tale for actors nervous about taking on similarly iconic roles.  But to his eternal credit, he never gave up and never lost his sense of humor, poking fun at himself and turning his public persona into sort of 24/7 in-character performance: “Adam West” the kooky eccentric.  It won him a new generation of fans and gave his career a second wind as a celebrity spokesperson, voice artist and frequent guest star “as himself” in the grand tradition of Hollywood legends who end up “famous for being famous” long after we forget what they were originally famous for.  If anyone ever had a reason to resent Batman and want to bury him, it was this guy, but he remained a fan and champion of the character until the end, which was awesome.

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It’s hard watching these icons of my youth exit the stage one by one, and I know it’s not over yet.  But if there’s any comfort to be had, it’s from knowing that as long as there’s reruns and DVDs and Blu-Rays and Roku and Youtube and whatever comes next, they’ll live on, forever young and vital and handsome and courageous.  Somewhere out there right now on a screen somewhere in the world, the Caped Crusader is racing into action in the Batmobile, figuring his way out of a nefarious death trap, stopping for a lecture on traffic safety or good nutrition.  And that’s as it should be.

Still, it’s hard not to feel it’s a dark day in Gotham, with that red phone beeping away unanswered.

Rest in peace, old chum.

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Remembering Roger Moore

rog-laldI’ve been taking the death of Roger Moore pretty hard, considering I never met the guy.  But after all, he’s been a part of my life as far back as I can remember.  Basically, he was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

As an awkward, buck-toothed beanpole of a kid living in a succession of middle-of-nowhere small towns, I was completely in awe of  this impossibly handsome, witty and sophisticated jet-setter who got to do the coolest things in the most wonderful places with the most interesting people in the world.  Early on, I decided that was the life for me.  If my off-the-rack Sears Toughskin leisure suits were no match for Roger’s bespoke creations from Cyril Castle or Douglas Hayward, and our Country Squire station wagon was a far cry from a Lotus Esprit, at least I could manage an approximation of Roger’s hairstyle, and after hours of practice in front of the mirror, raise one eyebrow at a time.

Looking back, I wonder if I could sense somehow that the “Roger Moore” I beheld was himself a construct, the invention of an insecure, pudgy and often sickly kid from  working class South London who grew up idolizing screen heroes like Stewart Granger and David Niven with dreams of following in their footsteps.  Young Roger George Moore taught himself to speak with a precise and measured upper-class accent and comport himself with the manners and grace of a true English gentleman, to the point where it was hard to imagine him not having been born into the peerage.  No one batted an eyelash when he played a full-fledged English Lord in The Persuaders, and when he was eventually knighted in real life, it seemed a logical development.  Even before I knew his biography, his carefully constructed public persona inspired my efforts to mimic the traits I most admired: an unflappable sang-froid under even the most stressful conditions, an air of class that never strayed to snobbery, pride in appearance that stopped short of vanity, the ability to weather reversals with humor and elan, to succeed by wit and wisdom where muscle was not sufficient.

Obviously, I tended to blur the lines between Roger Moore and James Bond since I knew the latter better than the former, but the great thing was that when Roger showed up on talk shows or interviews, he was a match for his fictional roles; dressed to the nines, debonair, cultured, witty and charismatic.  For me, Roger Moore WAS James Bond and vice-versa. Critics would dismiss his performances as not “acting” at all, saying he was just being himself.  Oddly, they seemed to be suggesting that was a bad thing.  Personally, I cherished the notion that somewhere out there in the “real” world was a guy every bit as cool as he seemed on screen.

bond-anyaSome have complained that Roger’s version of 007 was too unflappable, too flippant about the chaos exploding around him, but for me, this was the whole point of Classic Bond, the foundation of his portrayal: Roger’s Bond wasn’t immune to fear or pain, but he worked to remain their master.  His seeming indifference to danger was the key to surviving perils where indulging in panic meant courting death, and more than that was a strategy designed to drive his opponents nuts.  He remained nonplussed by their efforts to intimidate him, bored with their demonstrations of strength, bemused by their grandiose speeches, because he refused to grant them the satisfaction of knowing they were getting to him.

There are, if you look for them, plenty of moments when panic threatens to take hold, when Roger’s Bond realizes he’s in the soup and he’d better think fast:  Trapped on a tiny island surrounded by hungry alligators, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain as a villain kicks away the pitons holding him up, spinning to seeming doom in an out-of-control centrifuge.  In For Your Eyes Only, he’s tied to girlfriend du jour Melina as a motorboat prepares to pull them across a coral reef and tear them to shreds.  “I didn’t think it would end like this,” says Melina.  Looking her in the eyes, he answers calmly, “We’re not dead yet.”  With only the girl to hear him, and no villains to impress, he shows what’s at his core, not flippant disinterest but the dogged determination that he WILL, he MUST survive, or that if he must die, he’ll at least not give the enemy the satisfaction of breaking him.  This was old school, stiff-upper-lip English hero stuff, and I ate it up.

As a kid, it irritated me when adults said, “I liked him better as The Saint.”  I hadn’t seen The Saint at that point, but I knew it was a TV show, so the clear implications were that (1) no matter what Roger did, Sean Connery would always be better, and (2), Roger’s talents might have been good enough for TV, but he was clearly out of his depth in movies.  Eventually I did get to “meet” Simon Templar and I realized those old folks may have been on to something: I found that on the whole I liked Roger better as the Saint than I liked anyone as James Bond.  Where Bond was largely amoral and professional about his job (which was, in the end, to kill people), Templar was motivated by a strong personal sense of right and wrong (if not strict adherence to the law).  Bond was, for all his glamorous trappings, a glorified civil servant who had to show up at the office in the morning and take orders from a boss.  Templar was a “free agent” who went where he pleased and involved himself in cases when he felt like it, and for his own reasons.  That archetype of the hero motivated by a personal sense of right and wrong as opposed to patriotic duty was a better fit for Moore, more comfortable as the “knight errant” than the “blunt instrument” of a government agency.

When he transitioned from Templar to Bond, Roger brought along this sense of moral authority, the sense that he is in the game to right wrongs and deal evil-doers their just desserts.  It’s not a motivation that particularly applied to Connery’s Bond, who just did what he was assigned as ruthlessly as required, not because it was “right” or “justified,” but because it was his job.  It also doesn’t apply to Daniel Craig’s current take on 007, who we sense would just be out killing someone else if he wasn’t killing bad guys.  More so than any of the other Bonds, Moore’s is a “crusader,” an approach that plays to Roger’s strengths as a performer even though at times it runs counter to what the character’s about.  Sometimes it helps a scene, as when he kicks a killer’s car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only  (we know he deserves it) but sometimes it doesn’t, as when the script for Man With The Golden Gun has him slapping around Maud Adams; with Connery, it might have worked, but when Roger does it, he seems caddish and cowardly.  Later in Golden Gun, the high-priced hitman Scaramanga compares himself to Bond and touches a nerve: “When I kill,” Roger-Bond responds icily, “it’s on the orders of Her Majesty’s government, and those I kill are themselves killers.”  It’s a rare and odd moment of Bond trying to justify what he does for a living, and it’s hard to imagine Connery’s Bond offering the same defense.

Over the course of Roger’s 12-year tenure, Bond morphs to fit Moore’s screen persona as much as, or more than, Roger conforms to the Bond template, until, by the end, he’s chivalrously hanging from airplanes and blimps to rescue damsels in distress.  With Roger at the wheel, the role is incrementally steered away from “ruthless assassin” to something closer to “white knight.” Fandom remains divided over whether that’s a good thing.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and by the time of A View To A Kill in 1985, even I was ready for Roger to move on.  Unfortunately, what he went on to was a series of progressively awful films until he pretty much threw in the towel on acting, but on the up side that left him free to devote his time to his charity work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, championing the cause of underprivileged children around the world and becoming at last a hero in real life, as well.

Often mocked — sometimes not so gently — for being such a powerful avatar of the 70s, with its outlandish fashions, fatuous pursuits and general goofiness, over time Sir Roger became something of a national treasure in the UK.  When Timothy Dalton succeeded him as Bond, many fans were eager to embrace a more serious approach to 007, and it was easy to put down Roger for the same things that had sold all those tickets just a few years before.  But the further his era slips into the past, the more fondly it seems to be remembered.  It’s difficult to look at where the series is today, under the often grim and intensely physical Daniel Craig, and draw a through-line to Moore’s Bond, but certain vestiges remain.  If anything, his legacy is more obvious in non-Bond films like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series or The Kingsman films with their over-the-top sensibilities and lack of pretension.  I’d say if any franchise approximates what the Moore era was to Young Me, it’s Marvel’s superhero films, with their emphasis on dazzling spectacle, their embrace of humor, and their skill at transporting audiences to impossible but engaging worlds for a couple hours of pure, unapologetic escapism.

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This has turned out to be a ridiculously long post, but like I said Roger meant a lot to me, even at a distance.  I’m fast running out of childhood heroes and Roger was at the top of the list.  Given the shenanigans most celebrities are prone to, it was great to have a hero who only ever went up in my estimation, never down.

In closing, I like to remember Roger in a scene from Vendetta for the Saint, one of the best stories from the series and one of two adapted for theatrical release. Near the middle of the film, Simon Templar is being manhandled by mob enforcers at the behest of a dying Mafia don, who’s just ordered his execution. The expiring villain says, “Goodbye, Simon Templar.  We will never meet again.”  “I know,” answers Simon, glancing heavenward with a wry smile.  “I’m going that way.”

Godspeed, Sir Roger, and thanks.  May your halo never droop.

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Murphy Anderson, RIP

Comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t occurred to me until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed from his brush.

I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the late, great Curt Swan on the Superman family of comics. Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known as the blended entity “Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.

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Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”

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On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly master.  A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”

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I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s.  So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.

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One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style” of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge Marvel style.  In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste.  If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.

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This ability to, let us say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership would accept.

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This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told.  In all honesty, for me it worked.  I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman.   As it was, the books were already crammed with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me;  Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”

Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.

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I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics.  If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.

RIP.