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John Buscema’s first issue of THOR was #178, but he would return as the regular series artist with #182. And thus began the 70s (known to comic fans as the Bronze Age), when Jack Kirby moved to DC and Buscema stepped up to redefine the look of Marvel Comics.

One of the immortal Jack Kirby‘s greatest creations was THE MIGHTY THOR. Much has been said and written about Kirby’s years-long run on this classic title. It might even surpass his immortal FANTASTIC FOUR run as my favorite of his Marvel creations. However, one of my all-time favorite post-Kirby artists is the great Big John Buscema.

This summer, for the first time, I’m reading my way through the initial Buscema run on THE MIGHTY THOR.

I have about 17 classic issues in blazing full color from the glorious 15- and 20-cents era, beginning with THOR #183 up to #203 (with about three issues missing). If I were to buy all the actual Buscema issues (which begin in 1970) it would run into thousands of dollars. Luckily, I have the THOR ESSENTIALS Volumes 4, 5, and 6, which carry me nicely all the way to #247. And Volume 7 will be released in October 29.

The Essentials volumes are in black-and-white, but the art of John Buscema (usually inked by the amazing Joe Sinnott here) is so entirely superb, I don’t even miss the color. Oh, sure, I’ll read the dog-eared old full-color issues that I have, but the bulk of my journey through Buscema’s THOR years will be in black-and-white, where the pencils and inks take center-stage.

86927464040.185According to his Wikipedia page, John Buscema worked on THE MIGHTY THOR #178, 182-259 (with only a few breaks for fill-in artists), then returned for #272-278 and #283-285. During this time he also did 3 THOR Annuals. So as you can see, this is a journey that won’t be complete in a single summer. I have several years of Buscema’s THOR to enjoy as the issues are released in further Essentials volumes. (Perhaps down the road I’ll go back and collect them all in full-color Marvel Masterworks editions, but right now you get way more issues-per-volume with the b/w Essentials.)

It’s no easy thing to fill the shoes of Jack Kirby—the man who practically invented modern comics and established the Marvel Universe—but John Buscema not only did this several times, he helped move many Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations to the next era of greatness.

Spider-Man 77I grew up in the 1970s (born in ’69), and started reading comics before I hit elementary school. The first comic I remember picking up and “reading” (although I didn’t know how to read yet) was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #77, with stunning art by—you guessed it Big John Buscema. In this issue, Spider-Man is trying to defeat the Lizard while convincing the Human Torch to leave the beast alone (he doesn’t want to reveal that the Lizard is really his friend Dr. Kurt Conners). But the Torch won’t butt out, so there are some great scenes of Spidey vs. Torch vs. Lizard here. I remember this was the first time I had seen the Human Torch (although I had doubtless seen Spider-Man on the TV cartoon show). The images in that book imprinted a pattern on my young consciousness–a pattern set by the phenomenal art team of John Buscema and Joe Sinnott. THIS was Marvel Comics to me, from then on.

FF #108, Buscema's second issue and one of my all-time favorite comics covers.

FF #108 Buscema’s second issue and one of my all-time favorite comics covers.

Not long after this, I discovered my first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR. It was the infamous #108, with art by Buscema (who had just taken over for Jack Kirby, whose name I didn’t know at the time), but part of the issue was composed of left-over Kirby pages, shown as a “flashback.” But it was the COVER of this book that made my jaw drop and captured my imagination, once again imprinting on my brain in a way that said THIS is how comics should be done.

And who drew the cover? Of course it was Big John Buscema.

Many years later I learned the story of Marvel: How Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built it from the ground up (with a lil’ help from Steve Ditko), and made comics history until Kirby left the House of Ideas in 1970. Well, that was just about my entry point into the world!

So while the previous generation grew up revering Kirby as the King of Comics, for me it was John Buscema who was king. (Later—in my teen years (the 80s), John Byrne took that crown with his work on UNCANNY X-MEN and FANTASTIC FOUR, but he would share it with Frank Miller for his legendary DAREDEVIL run.)

86927464040.187When Kirby left Marvel in ’70, it could have meant the end. However, Stan Lee was smart enough to let the House Style evolve. Artists like John Buscema, Gil Kane, Jim Steranko, Rich Buckler, (and others) took up the best facets of Kirby’s work, but added an extra layer of realism—in the tradition begun by Neal Adams and Jim Aparo in the mid-60s. Buscema had done the super SILVER SURFER title (because Stan felt Kirby was too busy with his other books), he had taken THE AVENGERS to new heights years after Kirby created it, and now he came along and replaced Kirby no not one but TWO main Marvel books: THOR and FANTASTIC FOUR.

As a kid discovering comics, I knew none of this. I simply knew amazing artwork when I saw it. John Buscema became the new paradigm of a Marvel artist—something even Stan Lee recognized when he had Buscema be his partner on the book HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY. Had this book been done five years earlier, it would have probably been Kirby instead of Buscema. Indeed, a lot of the lessons Buscema iterates in the book are lessons learned from studying Jack Kirby’s work.

Kirby’s work effected every artist who came after him, he was THAT important.

86927464040.188So, when I say that the John Buscema run on THOR and FANTASTIC FOUR are my favorite runs of those comics, I do not disparage the amazing and seminal work of the great Jack Kirby in creating those concepts and maintaining/evolving them for most of a decade. There is no doubt that Kirby was and still is “The King of Comics.” However, I grew up on John Buscema, not Jack Kirby. And there’s something about that you cannot avoid.

John Buscema, in my mind, was every bit the genius that Kirby was—in his own way. Perhaps this is why others have called Buscema “The Michelangelo of Comics.” Others have called Kirby “The Picasso of Comics.”

Now, for the first time, I’m able to sit back and discover the spectacular work Buscema did on THOR when he took over for Kirby. (I also have his entire FANTASTIC FOUR run in Essentials volumes–but that’s a later post.) I’m completely amazed at the quality of these issues—having read only a handful of them so far—and I’m even more amazed by this fact: Buscema drew FF and THOR simultaneously!

Big John came in and not only replaced Kirby on one of his most iconic titles—but TWO at once! Much has been written about Kirby’s Herculean work ethic—and Buscema had to be cut from that same cloth. Today’s comics artists don’t draw two monthly titles at once. It’s just not done anymore.

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When John Buscema had the luxury of inking his own pencils (as he does here in a CONAN illustration) the results hearkened back to the great artists of the comics strips: Alex Raymond, Russ Manning, and Hal Foster.

These classic runs (THOR and FF) were nearly impossible to find when I was a kid, but I grew up reading Buscema’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN. That was my biggest “Buscema fix” as a young’un (although I loved the reprints of his 60s AVENGERS run in Marvel Triple Action). Later I discovered that he had replaced another master, Barry Windsor-Smith, who started CONAN at Marvel. When you have a giant talent and you need to fill his shoes—you got Big John Buscema. This is one of the big lessons you learn when you look at his career.

I’ve always had Buscema’s CONAN issues, and enjoyed them time and time again. In addition, he did tons of issues of THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN, the black-and-white “mature readers” magazine. Just as he had drawn FF and THOR on a monthly basis at the same time, Buscema did the CONAN color comic and the SAVAGE SWORD magazine simultaneously. The word “prolific” barely even describes it.

Buscema had a number of inkers during his long tenure at Marvel, but he always preferred to ink himself. I always found it a rare treat when I found a Buscema pencilled-and-inked issue (or cover). My favorite Buscema inker growing up was Ernie Chan (in the CONAN color comic) and Tony DeZuniga (in SAVAGE SWORD). However, now that I’m finally able to read Buscema’s THOR run, I have to say that Joe Sinnott was the perfect choice for it.

86927464040.202The Buscema/Sinnott artwork is as gorgeous to look at as the Kirby/Sinnott combo was. Sinnott is considered one of the best inkers Kirby ever had, and I maintain that he is definitely also one of the best inkers to lay a brush across John Buscema’s pencils.

So how did Buscema fill Kirby’s shoes? Stan Lee stayed on as writer until #193, when he turned the writing reins over to Gerry Conway. What a prime gig this must have been for the new-to-comics Conway. More than anything else, this was Buscema’s show. (Or The Buscema/Sinnott Show, to be more precise.)

Buscema came in with a bang: Odin summons Thor back to Asgard, where a threat beyond any other looms near. The approach of The World Beyond and a mysterious being known only as Infinity are literally “eating up” the universe. Worlds and stars are being snuffed out or mindlessly enslaved as this force moves across the cosmos. Odin goes off to fight Infinity alone, but Thor soon follows.

This first major Lee/Buscema story arc (after a quick two-issue Doctor Doom tale) is as cosmic and interstellar as anything Kirby ever did—Thor and Odin (with some help from the enignmatic Silent One) are literally battling to save the entire universe. Infinity makes Galactus look like a chump! (There’s a great scene where we see Galactus slumbering on a distant planetoid, his tummy full of the most recent planet he’s devoured.)

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Coming off his extra-galactic SILVER SURFER run, John Buscema brought his stellar “cosmic” sensibility to bear on his THOR run, which would last far longer.

The reason Buscema brought such a cosmic vibe to THOR right off the bat is obvious to any comics scholars: He was coming off his 17-issue SILVER SURFER run, a comic that turned Norrin Rad from a supporting character into one of comics’ all-time great icons. Many years ago I acquired the wonderful Marvel Masterworks full-color editions of the original SILVER SURFER—it was way too short, and now Buscema’s tour de force continues in the pages of his THOR run.

By the time the unguessable secret of Infinity is revealed, the earth itself has faced a cataclysm of Biblical proportions. Thankfully, when all the cosmic dust has settled, the Odin-power is there to restore the broken universe. Yet Thor is left with a huge debt to pay the Hela, the Goddess of Death. Hela has always been one of my favorite Kirby creations, and in the hands of Buscema she is even more gorgeous and deadly.

I’m still at the beginning of my “journey back to Asgard” in the company of the masters Buscema and Sinnott, but already I find it utterly inspiring and at times even breathtaking in its sheer perfection of comic art excellence. There is so much great stuff to discover in the issues that follow: Kartag the Keeper, the return of Mangog, Ego-Prime, the Legions of Pluto, the Mark of Mephisto, Ulik the Troll-King, the Demon Brigade, Xorr the Spawner of Worlds, the Keeper of the Inner Cosmos, Hercules, Galactus, Firelord, Odin in Exile, the Time-Twisters, and more…

Later I’ll go back and read Buscema’s initial FANTASTIC FOUR run—the one he drew at the same time he was doing all these great THOR tales. Even though these runs were created and published simultaneously, I can only take in so much brilliance at one time.