Will Draw (or Write) for Food
by Frank Esposito
The Amazing 1982-1985 Cast of World's Finest Creators
Quick: Which mainstream DC title employed the talents of Keith Giffen, George Tuska, Gil Kane, Gene Colan, Steve Lightle, Klaus Janson, Kurt Busiek, and Alfredo Alcala over a 33-month stretch in the early-to-mid-1980s?
The amazing answer: World's Finest Comics, the Superman/Batman team-up vehicle that endured a remarkable 45-year, 323-issue run before bidding farewell in 1986.
Yes, World's Finest. One of those mainstream DC books that always seemed to get overlooked. Granted, it was somewhat difficult to come up with a super-powered challenge big enough for Superman -- but not too big for Batman -- month after month, but that's what DC did. The draw of putting their two big guns together proved too strong to resist for four and a half decades.
The stretch I'm talking about began with WFC #284 (Oct. 1982) in the conclusion of a two-parter in which Supes, Bats, and the Legion of Super-Heroes (!) battled the Composite Superman. Keith Giffen penciled the cover, under Larry Mahlstedt inks, with George Tuska drawing the interior. Tons of people love Tuska, a comics vet since the 1940s, but I've never been one of them. By this point, the then-66-year-old's talents had faded considerably, leading to some grotesque facial delineations of Superman and Cosmic Boy, in particular.
This issue also features a swell eight-page Green Arrow backup, drawn by Dan Spiegle, where GA battled the always-ridiculous Clock King.
In this era, it seemed that WFC was written and drawn by anyone passing through the DC office that month. Nowhere is this more evident than in the haphazard handling of issues 287-288 (Jan.-Feb. 1983).
WFC #287 (Jan. 1983) featured some bizarrely angular art from Trevor Von Eeden in the service of a Batman's-a-vampire script from Cary Burkett. Cameos from Robin (including a cover appearance), Flash, and Wonder Woman sweeten the pot.
This strong start was -- for reasons unknown -- concluded in the next issue with a Mike Barr/Marv Wolfman script and embarassing pencilwork from Adrian Gonzales, who displayed a troubling lack of knowledge on how to draw the human face and form.
Maybe this two-issue flip-flop heralded the arrival of DC Challenge, the 12-issue, 1985-86 series where writers and artists were challenged to continue the work of the previous month's creative team.
Gil Kane, the Silver Age legend who passed away in early 2000, provided a glorious cover for WFC #289 (March 1983). A gigantic, somber Batman lords over an urban skyline while a smiling Superman soars in the foreground. DC should have marketed this classic as a poster.
(And lest I be accused of being ageist in light of my comments regarding Tuska, let me point out Kane was going on 57 when he cranked out this beauty. Younger than Tuska, but not quite a wunderkind.)
Klaus Janson's inks grace most of the WFC covers between issues 294-314. Frank Miller's longtime partner on Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns was frequently paired with Ed Hannigan, adding weight and tone to a number of standard comic book-cover scenarios.
70s Marvel superstar (Daredevil/Dracula) Gene Colan stopped by in WFC #297, contributing a cover (under Janson inks) and pencils (under Bob Smith inks) to a story begun by Ross Andru/Mike DeCarlo in the previous issue. At least David Anthony Kraft got to write the script all the way through.
Kraft's three-part story concluded in WFC #298 (Dec. 1983) with - surprise! - a third art/ink team. Industry vets Sal Amendola and Steve Mitchell answered the call this time.
Legion standout Steve Lightle handled pencils in issues 304-306 (June-Aug. 1984), inked by Sal Trapani and Dennis Janke. Janson got to handle the cover of #304 (June 1984) all by himself. Unfortunately, the cover doesn't feature Superman or Batman. Instead, Janson got to portray Null & Void, a couple of lame-o DC villains lost to the sands of time and mourned by no one.
Kurt Busiek provided the script for WFC #308 (Oct. 1984), in what may have been the future Astro City star's first comics-writing credit. Regardless, an innocent enough tale where DC's twin icons fight some guy in an armored suit was marred by the pencils of the now-68-year-old Tuska. The nice Hannigan/Janson cover offered some solace.
Undeterred, Busiek wrote the next issue (WFC #309, Nov. 1984) as well. This time, he was rewarded with strong work from Mark Texeira and Alfredo Alcala. This was around the time Alcala was glorifying Rick Veitch's pencils in Swamp Thing, and his work here is on the same level. He adds a dark, noirish quality to superhero work which catches and holds the eye.
The ish also is noteworthy for the inclusion of a 16-page "bonus" insert introducing Flash Force 2000, a failed Matchbox toy line of vehicles. Robert Loren Fleming (story), Denys Cowan (pencils) and Sal Trapani (inks) would be hard-pressed to dispute the fact that they basically phoned this one in.
In WFC #310 (Dec. 1984), DC took another stab at a minority superhero. This time, it's Sonik, a mask/headband/afro-clad hero with sound-based gadgets. He's a community activist trying to stop the spread of drugs in his ghetto neighborhood (stop me if you've heard this one before) who decides to take the law into his own hands as a crime-busting vigilante. Sonik appeared again in WFC #318, but I don't know if he ever reared his head in the DC Universe after that.
Sonik fits into that same "randomly-generated new character" mold that spat out Null & Void. Other lightweights included in this run are Tonatiuh (WFC #294, Aug. 1983), an Aztec sun god whose costume combined native South American culture with a helmet meant for firefighting or deep-sea diving, and Swordfish and Barracuda (WFC #306, Aug. 1984), a ridiculous, nautical-themed twosome who fancied themselves "the scourges of pirates across the Caribbean." I guess this explains why the Joker never built a headquarters in Barbados.
One exception was the Pantheon, a wanna-be world-dominating outfit introduced in WFC #296 (Oct. 1983) which, for once, gave the Superman/Batman combo a run for their money.
In addition to being a halfway house for wandering comics pros, WFC also seemed to be a try-out book for untested talent, including some who were never heard from again. In some cases, they disappeared for good reason -- such as a prominent lack of skill -- but there were also some diamonds in the rough who left behind only questions.
One of these was Jerome Moore, who drew WFC #s 294 and 295 (Aug.-Sept. 1983) in a solid Dick Dillin/Alex Saviuk hand which showed promise at times. The more noteworthy, however, was the mysterious Larry Stroman, who penciled WFC #s 316 and 317 (June-July 1985) in a slightly cartoonish, vibrant style that should have won him further assignments.
Looking back, it's difficult to guess at the strategy DC applied to World's Finest in this period. It had just ended a fun run as an anthology book and would grind to a halt with issue #323. It seemed like a book the company wasn't really enthusiastic about, but continued to publish almost as a reflex, until somebody looked around one month, realized it was still there, looked at a sales report, and didn't like what they saw.
But I'd take my chances with the likes of Colan, Kane, Janson, Busiek, and Alcala any day.
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This piece is © 2002 by Frank Esposito
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