1985: Mr. Monster

Doc Stearn…Mr. Monster (1985) #1-10, Mr. Monster’s Super Duper Special (1986) #1-8, Airboy-Mr. Monster Special (1987) #1 by Michael T. Gilbert et al.

I remember being vaguely taken with Gilbert’s collection of Wraith stories (published by Aardvark Vanaheim), but for some reason or other I skipped buying Mr. Monster back in the days.

If I had known that William Messner-Loebs was responsible for the inks (and some of the pencils), I probably would have bought it, because I was a rabid Journey fan. The Wraith was a homage to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and Messner-Loebs was also very influenced by Eisner, so Gilbert and Messner-Loebs is an obvious (and quite attractive) pairing.

Throughout Mr. Monster’s run, the book is dominated by short stories, often between eight and sixteen pages. I guess this suits the material (it’s a zany kinda-parody of super-heroes fighting monsters), but it does give you a very choppy reading experience.

It’s quite dense, so you do get the feeling the Gilbert does want to give the reader “value for money”… Cramming as many weird things into as few pages as possible.

Gilbert explains that he er borrowed the Doc Stern{e,}/Mr. Monster concept from an old comic book that had now fallen into the public domain.

Gilbert’s version of Mr. Monster was originally meant for the Pacific Comics anthology Vanguard, but Pacific Comics went bankrupt and Eclipse took over the first three eight-page episodes that had already been done, without writing a contract for any further issues. But it apparently sold well, so the book continued on at Eclipse.

Gilbert writes and does the layouts, while Messner-Loebs is supposed to do the pencils and inking, but its obvious from early on that basically Gilbert does whatever he wants to, and leaves the boring parts to Messner-Loebs. This gives the artwork a rather schizophrenic look, where one panel is clearly rendered fully by Messner-Loebs, and some look more like finished Gilbert panels, like the above.

As for the writing… Reading this, I found myself going “oh, yeah, he’s going for over-the-top posturing? and it’s… amusing?” I don’t really think Gilbert takes it far enough: It’s almost not a joke. Tweak it slightly and it’s just any super-hero comic.

I did not laugh out loud at any point while reading this, which is probably more a reflection of my mood than the work in question, but there you go.

I find this rather amazing: Mr. Monster #1 sold 26K copies! And in subsequent issues both Gilbert and editor cat ⊕ yronwode will mention that the circulation has increased by a further 5K copies, and then “with every issue”. So we can guess that at its height, it sold in the mid-30Ks, which are numbers any of the major comic book companies today would consider extremely respectable.

The letters pages have a fun club-like vibe going on. Every issue somebody’s submitted fan artwork or something. And the people writing in doesn’t seem to be children, so it’s rather puzzling why Mr. Monster would attract this crowd… Perhaps they just found it to be totes hilaire?

Speaking of fan art: The main feature in the third issue is written by superstar writer Alan Moore. Not all the pages are as experimental as this one, but it’s quite interesting nevertheless. And I guess I should mention letterer Ken Bruzenak who does almost all the lettering throughout Mr. Monster, and he does it flawlessly and imaginatively.

Also with #3 Gilbert starts running oldie reprints as backup features. Here’s Basil Wolverton…

… and here’s Jeffrey Bonivert, who’s not an oldie at all. But, man, is that the most 70s drawing ever? I mean ever?

Gilbert explains that he has to run reprints because Mr. Monster is very expensive to produce: Not just because he pays the other people well, but because he also pays himself well. Which is refreshingly honest.

I wonder what name was blanked out there: “including Alan More, Dave Stevens, and Steve Bissette”…

Who’s doing what on the main feature is rather chaotic: Here’s Jeffrey Bonivert doing some pages.

Reprints continue with Jeffrey Grandenetti, who was an assistant at Eisner’s studio, and drew very much like him, so I see the attraction.

In #4, Gilbert does a solo eight-page story, which also seems to illustrate what I think are his weaknesses as an artist: His pages are rather unreadable. I know that he wants the over-the-top chaotic atmosphere, but my eyes just slid around page like without latching on to anything.

Messner-Loebs also does a solo story here, and it’s extremely readable. But not as entertaining as Gilbert can be.

One thing I did like about Mr. Monster was its feeling of constant experimentation and “anything goes”. Just throw any old thing in here and see whether it works or not. So here we have TERROR-CHROMA! which turns out to be computer colouring. The first ever, apparently:

Colours by Steve Oliff on a computer and artwork by Bonivert.

When I read this I went “uh oh, that’s the last we’ll see of Messner-Loebs here”: Gilbert says that he repencilled some of the faces on Messner-Loebs’ solo story.

Somebody on the letters page suggests that Don Simpson should be roped in…

… and the next issue he does the cover and the inks because, yup, Messner-Loebs left. I have no idea whether that had anything to do with the repencilling thing, but, you know.

Steve Ditko! The introduction says that some people claim it’s Ditko’s very first story, which is fun.

Mr. Monster was nominated for Best New Series at the Kirby Awards, so I guess people liked it, they really liked it?

A Swamp Thing/Mr. Monster team-up was contracted for, but never happened, I think?

Gilbert and Moore had even plotted the story (which Gilbert later described as “a romp through the horror worlds of various old comic book companies”), but right before Gilbert began to actually produce the story, Alan Moore had his split with DC Comics over Watchmen and without Moore, obviously there was no project left.

Oh well.

Of the weirdest random drive-by contributions, we have two pages by the wonderful Mark Martin.

Finally in #10, we get another full-issue story, and it has some of the funnier bits Gilbert came up with. I think on pages like this (and the two subsequent ones) Gilbert finally goes over the top enough to be like you know funny. It’s a bit Mad in the Kurtzman years.

And this is the much-heralded 6-D issue: It’s twice as good as 3-D because it’s both in colour and has 3-D elements. Unfortunately, the 3-D elements didn’t work at all for me: They were just uncomfortable blurs.

Gilbert explains where he came up with the idea: He saw it in an old comic book.

And then Mr. Monster is cancelled. Gilbert doesn’t outright state here why it’s cancelled, but alludes to sales and that perhaps it’ll continue later and I immediately though DRAMA!

Using the Comics Journal Search Engine, I soon found this news item written by “TP”, but I’m too lazy to look up the indicia, so I guess that might be Thom Powers?

MICHAEL T. GILBERT TAKES MR. MONSTER TO DARK HORSE

Creator Michael T. Gilbert is taking his Mr. Monster from Eclipse Comics to Dark Horse. According to Gilbert, he made the decision early in the summer based on a recent decline in sales, editorial differences, and the conclusion of contractual obligations with Eclipse.

“Eclipse is perceived in the industry as a company that can’t sell super-heroes,” Gilbert said. He pointed out in the past two years Eclipse’s sales on super-hero titles such as Miracleman, The Champions, New Wåve, DNAgents, and Crossfire have shown a distinct decline.

[…]

Eclipse was contracted to publish 12 issues ofMr. Monster. But after a steady decline in sales, Gilbert said publisher Dean Mullaney asked Gilbert to wrap up the series with issue and do an Airboy/Mr. Monster team-up in place of the last two issues.

“There was no talk of continuation,” Gilbert added. Gilbert blames poor sales partly on a lack of continued advertising. Due to Eclipse’s great output, Gilbert says, most of their comics get advertised only during the first couple of months after their debut, “unless it’s a property they own outright,” such as Airboy.

“Editorial differences”: “The last straw” that sent Gilbert seeking a new publisher rather than renegotiating a new contract with Eclipse was the changing of “certain wordings” made without Gilbert’s consent to his part of the script in the Airboy/Mr. Monster team-up. He had previously had “editorial differences” with Eclipse co-publisher Cat Yronwode that he didn’t wish to comment on.

“I think Eclipse didn’t quite know what they had with Mr. Monster:’ Gilbert said. On the other hand, “The people at Dark Horse have been fans of the book for some time and made it known to me that they would like to publish it.”

[…]

The comic will be changed to a black-and-white, monthly format with at least 16 pages of new material each issue, plus a back-up feature reprinting a “golden age” story.

Yup. So much drama.

But what’s that about an Airboy/Mr. Monster special?

It’s a weird one. I have yet to read Airboy, so I have no idea whether metafictionality is its stock in trade, but the crossover book is all about one of the old golden-age illustrators of Airboy being threatened by an Airboy villain and is then saved by some heroes.

It manages to be pat and bizarre at the same time, which is quite an achievement.

Gerard Jones adds a text where he compares Airboy to Thomas Jefferson.

I think.

And that’s the end of Mr. Monster at Eclipse. Gilbert would continue publishing it at a bewildering array of publishers over the next few decades, and is still working in comics.

But there’s more! Concurrently with Mr. Monster, an eight issue series of reprints was published. It’s called Mr. Monster’s Super Duper Special with various sub-titles (or super-titles, because sometimes the title doesn’t appear on the cover, only in the indicia, which is a thing Eclipse did sometimes).

The first issue is a 3D thing, and has some of the most extreme 3D effects I’ve seen. It’s exhausting to make your eyes focus that far back and then have to focus to the front again to read the text.

Even the text pages are whack: One of them’s printed so the blue channel has black text…

… and the red channel has white text. Oops. That didn’t come out well in the camera…

Like Mr. Monster itself, the effects are a bit on the exhausting side.

The series is mostly public domain potboilers from the 40s and 50s. Gilbert says that Eclipse try to look up the artists responsible and give them a $75 per page reprint fee (even though they don’t have to), which is nice of them (if accurate).

The prettiest piece reprinted is this one drawn by George Evans.

It’s not all horror and sci-fi: We also get two pages of “true crime” by Jack Cole of Plastic Man fame. These images were among the ones Fredrick Wertham used in his book Seduction of the Innocent to illustrate how extreme comics books had gotten, and that they should be censored.

The thing about these old comics… I understand that many people love them (certainly at the time; some of them had circulations in the millions), but I just find them tedious. I know, they’re bad comics, and when it comes to bad comics, you just irrationally love them or not. I kinda like reading Ric Hochet comics, even if they’re tedious and formulaic, and I can’t quite explain why.

I just don’t have a taste for this particular kind of nonsense, so getting through some of these reprints was a chore.

Max Allan Collins apparently feels the same way. Only he kinda likes the particular ones reprinted here.

Things pick up a bit with this Bob Powell sci-fi yarn. I love how the user interface on space ship is so horribly bad that stumbling around sends you to Mercury.

The best issues here are the Hi-Schlock Shock! issues.

Gilbert has collected some of the most bizarre stuff he could find, like this guy who’s run over by a steamroller and then… becomes evil… but thin, very thin, produced by the Iger studios.

And there’s a Dick Briefer Frankenstein story here, which is the only one that made me want to read more. It’s so weird. But readable.

Fred Hembeck drops by to explain what makes schlock schlock, and that’s a pretty good explanation.

The Miss Gay and Butch Dykeman is a parody comic from the 50s (allegedly), so it’s not really schlock, is it?

The final issue is dedicated to Basil Wolverton strips from Weird Tales from the Future.

And that’s it, folks.

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