Tuesday, December 1, 2015

FINDING JOHN JACOBS (More remarkable tales about Black Atlas, Tami, Wolf Angel and the mad genius behind Madison Comics)

IF YOU’VE never read any of John Jacobs' output from Madison Comics in the mid-1980s, then you’ve missed out on some of the most bizarre outsider art ever produced in the comics world.
I first became aware of him through a review by noted comics writer Jan Strnad in The Comics Journal #94 of Dr Peculiar #1. I read and re-read it dozens of times and marvelled at the samples of his primitive pencilled art. My mind tried to absorb a comic that had heavy religious overtones plus a healthy dose of T&A (with a monster rape/cannibal fetish). The reviewer theorised that John Jacobs’ mind must be like a bowl of maggots.
It became my mission to own a copy of Dr Peculiar #1. I eventually did receive a copy 25 years later courtesy of American friend Mike Pindell of the Comic Book Attic podcast fame.
I immediately read it and, yes, it was every bit as weird and perverse as I’d imagined.
I reviewed Dr Peculiar #1 in BP #31 in 2009 and followed it up in two years with an article in BP #32 about Ken Landgraf, the professional inker who’d polished Jacobs’ turd-like pencils.
I also wrote to Jacobs, but never received a response.
Fast forward to last September when I received an email from Chris Pitzer, the publisher at AdHouse Books: “Dann, Greetings! My friends and I have slowly been trying to piece together the Landgraf/Jacobs world as well! Do you have any more insights you’d like to share? For instance, is John Jacobs the same John Jacobs that would do the Power Team comic? It really seems like it given the religious undertones. I’m still on the hunt for a Black Atlas and Dr Peculiar #2 if you should ever have dupes.”
Someone else was interested in John Jacobs? And they were trying to track him down? I had to reply to this guy: “ Hi Chris. I wish I could help you more, but sadly the only info I have about John is what I gleaned from Ken. Apart from that, nothing. John never replied to my letter – he may not even be alive anymore. I have a copy of Dr Peculiar #1 and Power Stars #1&2. While Dr Peculiar #2 was solicited and I've even seen a cover for it online, I've never found an actual issue for sale, so I suspect it was never published.”
An email conversation ensued. Chris wrote: “Dann, thanks so much! While I have owned Dr Peculiar #1 for a year, I’ve yet to read it. I’m sort of ‘saving’ it, I guess? My comic creator pal Jim Rugg said of Jacobs/Landraf: ‘Why create anything else? Wolf Angel is the best thing ever created.’”
Chris asked for John Jacobs’ postal address (which I’d received from Landgraf) plus copies of my zines. He traded me some AdHouse comics. You can read my review of those publications HERE.

TALKING to Chris got me thinking about the other Madison titles I had in my “to-be-read” file. I pulled them out and guess what? They’re just as FUCKED UP as Dr Peculiar #1.

Far Frontier #1 (1984): The magazine-sized comic opens with an EC-style sci-fi/horror cover by Lee Carlson, which would be good if it wasn’t so heavily cross-hatched and was a little less subtle with its monster. Seriously, at first I thought it was a green doormat in the corner of the pic.

The first feature is Astroman (Story & pencils: John Jacobs/Finished art: Ken Landgraf), a Superman knock-off who’s also a Christian. We see Astroman stopping an out-of-control car, then cut to a hooded female assassin breaking into “SeeDee Comics” where she confronts “Manny Phares”, penciller of “The Titanic Teenyboppers”.
The assassin and her robot accomplice carry the protesting penciller into the printing room and drown him in a vat of ink.
Meanwhile, there are various not-so-subtle hints on who’s under the hood. A Seedee Comics nightwatchmen is watching Gone With The Wind during a scene where Scarlett O’Hara talks about her plantation Tara. Later, in the printing room, the radio is playing the song, “Tara-ra boom-de-ay! Tara-ra boom-de-ay!”
The assassin then tracks down Teenyboppers writer “Merv Foxman”, who’s watching an episode of Battlestar Galactica titled “Experiment in Terra”. She shoots him with a tranquilliser dart, transports him to a nearby print shop, then throws him into the printing press where he’s crushed to death.
A month later, SeeDee editor Ben Winesap decides to unwind after a hard day at work by going to a movie theatre to see a new film called “Stepsons Of Terra”.
Ben tells his bodyguard, “It’s a sequel to ‘The Wolfman Who Destroyed Terra’.” I just hope that wolfman doesn’t go on another killing spree.”
After leaving the movie theatre, Winesap’s killed by where Ben is killed by a giant blue pencil fired from a crossbow by the robot.
Astroman is called in on the case, but he’s too late to save the SeeDee Comics building, which is destroyed by “a small, localised earthquake”.
Our hero flies over and finds the assassin and her robot. He uses a power damper to stop her superpowers, then uses “ice vision” to freeze their feet.
He arrests them and removes the hood, exclaiming, “You’re just a kid! You can’t be a day over seventeen!”
He demands to know why she assassinated all these people from SeeDee Comics, which sets up the big reveal over the page...a FULL-PAGE PIN-UP of a young blonde woman with an artificial left arm, scars on her cheek and an eye patch. She refuses to reveal her identity and the episode ends.

The opposite page has another pin-up stating, “Who is this young woman and why she so angry? See the next Astroman story!”
And it’s followed by a copyright line: “Tami © John Jacobs”.
Yep, our villain’s big secret is blown by a copyright line. And Tami is clearly a pastiche of Terra/Tara Markoff, the traitorous psycho who’d recently died in DC’s The New Teen Titans.
So, this entire episode was designed for Jacobs to set up “the return of Terra”, clearly because he was pissed off that Marv Wolfman and George Perez had killed her in their comic.

Next comes arguably the Madison imprint’s most brain-melting creation, Wolf Angel (no credits, but it looks like Jacobs and Landgraf again), who is a wolf-headed angel. The strip opens with “Arthur Lomond” on a 747 to London when a meteor hits it and the plane loses a wing. Arthur wants to save the plane “but I can’t unless somebody prays in faith!”

Luckily, a few people do and a couple of underwhelming sound effects are drawn at the bottom of a panel (“Zzztt! Crak!”). Wolf Angel magically appears to save the plane and its passengers. We then jump to a scene showing who directed the meteor at the 747: Wolf Angel’s evil brother “Wolf Demon”. While he’s gloating at his sibling’s misfortune, he’s interrupted by “Lucifer”, who orders Wolf Demon to “corrupt the President of the United States”.
Meanwhile, Wolf Angel has got the plane safely onto the ground and he muses about God and the power of prayer...for five panels.
I’d love to have seen what happened in the second episode, but this was the first and last instalment of Wolf Angel.
Next are two strips that are identical except for the endings. The longer story, Moon Raider (no credits), is about female volunteer astronaut, “Lukorm”, who’s sent from her planet to Earth to investigate the Earth explorers who’ve just landed on their planet (why they don’t just simply contact the explorers is never explained).
On her trip, Lukorm is attacked by spacecraft from “the warlike Zaroti”, then upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, Lukorm’s ship is bombed out of the sky by the “People’s Democracy of Belgravia”.
Lukorm crash-lands in “Lake Louise”. She decides to explore the new planet but first: “Before I do anything else, I’d better kneel down and thank God for a safe landing on this strange and beautiful globe.”

Lukorm talks to an owl, then befriends a sasquatch family. And that’s it.
Mars Maid (no credits) is set on Mars with Lukorm replaced by “Shirla”. Instead of the Zaroti, Shirla’s ship is attacked by the Russians(!). Entering the Earth’s atmosphere, her craft is shot down by the “People’s Republic of Malugua” and it crashes into “Lake Eileen”.
However, the strip ends abruptly with an EC horror-shock ending when an owl attacks Shirla. The final panel reads, “The six-inch-high woman will make a fine meal!” The End!
Overall, Far Frontier reads like an amateurish pisstake of EC Comics (with Landgraf’s aping of Wally Wood’s inks and the EC-style lettering) mashed up with a Jack Chick religious tract.

In the editorial for Power Stars #1 (1985), Jacobs admits Far Frontier has been replaced by this new title. He also tackles Strnad’s review of Dr Peculiar, calling it “a fair and balanced critique”. He modestly admits Dr Peculiar was “far from perfect – not nearly as good as the one you are reading now. The only thing that offended me about Strnad’s column is his accusing me of ‘pandering’ to adolescent sex fantasies.”
Jacobs passionately defends his comic, saying it’s no worse than Americomics’ FemForce and DC’s Legion Of Super-Heroes. He says his comics are “mild” and aimed at the same audience. An audience that likes scantily clad heroines being threatened with rape by monsters who then want to eat them alive, presumably.
“Perhaps he was offended by the fact that I pointed out that there is a possibility that there might be alien animals who like to copulate with their victims before devouring them.” Er...OK, Jacobs. You’re just making it worse.
He continues, “I guffawed loudly while reading [the review], especially the part where [Strnad] indicated that my brain reminded him of a mass of squirming maggots. I thought everyone’s brain was like that! (Just kidding, folks.) Anyhoo, I consider Dr Peculiar #1 a success because it got The Comics Journal discussing the Word of God. So there.”
Back to Power Stars #1. It kicks off with Black Atlas (Jacobs/Landgraf) and his origin. Like most of their collaborations, the story is filled with blatant art swipes and storylines ripped off from other superhero comics.
Black Atlas was skinny and weak as a child – and bullied for being a Christian – but through hard work, training and prayer he became a powerhouse “too strong for school sports”.
One day, Black Atlas – who strolls around the street wearing a superhero costume with a giant “A” on his chest (no wonder people bullied the nutter) – beat up a street tough and decided to be a crime-fighter. He meets Astroman and the pair become friends...or Bible buddies...or something. Their relationship is never made clear. But he helps Black Atlas become “an undercover law enforcement agent, as well as a film actor and body builder”. Okey-dokey then.
Astroman returns in a follow-up tale to Far Frontier. After easily defeating Tami and her robot, our hero takes her to jail. Astroman has placed a collar around Tami’s neck to neutralise her powers, which I presume are the earth-based powers that Terra had in New Teen Titans. Not that we’ve seen them used at all so far in Jacobs’ stories.

We’re then treated to a looooong (like seven pages) discussion between Astroman and various officials from “the FBI, the police, the military and the Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare – among others” on what they should do with Tami. At one point there’s a jaw-dropping sequence where everyone starts discussing a book that links antisocial behaviour with poor nutrition, particularly white sugar. One charactger even explains how readers can buy the book, including the price, street address and zipcode. This is all treated as a regular conversation. Clearly, Jacobs had just read the book and felt very strongly about it.
Eventually, Tami ends up as Astroman’s ward – even though she’s responsible for at least three murders. He flies her to his base in Antarctica, planning to rehabilitate Tami – although she continues to scheme of ways to escape. End of chapter.
Next we have Bazonga The Jungle Woman (Jacobs/Landgraf), which is surprisingly sedate, run-of-the-mill jungle adventures, although there is a healthy amount of T&A plus heavy anti-Communist rhetoric as Bazonga and her animal friends defeat some Cuban soldiers invading her home turf.
This is followed by arguably the best drawn strip ever to appear in a Madison Comics release; Dove 1 by Gary Thomas Washington. He can’t write for shit, but the sci-fi tale is competently drawn so there’s no point talking about it in this review.

Finally, there’s one more Black Atlas strip (writer: Jacobs/art: Jacobs, Jeff Antkowiak & JohnJeff Potter, where he faces Miss Bunting (an African-American female Captain America with practically the identical original story). Her original name? “Jan Strand” – I’m sure there’s a solid psychological reason why Jacobs gave her that name.
Seems Miss Bunting vanished after helping the Allies win WW2. In fact, she was defeated by an evil scientist, placed in suspended animation for 40 years, then sold to the Belgravian government and brainwashed into serving their evil ends. Yep, this tale came out 25 years before the Winter Soldier storyline!
So Miss Bunting is ordered to find and kill Black Atlas. The pair clash and Black Atlas defeats her with surprising ease. The story concludes rather suddenly with Miss Bunting being led away by the police, still brainwashed.

Power Stars #2 (1985) begins with another John Jacobs editorial. By this stage, Power Stars was the ONLY Madison Comics title left. John tackles the big issue: “Is Tami a rip-off of Tara?” To which he replies, “No, Tami is related to Tara of the Teen Titans in exactly the same way that the Squadron Supreme is related to the Justice League of America...used by Marvel as a parody.
“Tami was originally going to be a country singer called ‘Lukie Lou’. No lie. However, I was so deeply moved by the death of Tara Markov in the Teen Titans Annual that I decided to use the character as a Tara parody in a satirical story  dedicated to all those readers who were tired of seeing their favourite characters killed off. Astroman is a parody of Superman.
“Tami is the kind of person that Tara might have become had she survived and been adopted by someone like Astroman.”
Thanks for clearing that up for us, JJ.
We launch straight into a Black Atlas tale, which is really an excuse for a few full-page collages plus we see our hero meeting Tami. Astroman introduces her to Black Atlas as “the rock singer Tami”, which is odd until we read a later strip.
We segue straight into Tami (Story/pencils: John Jacobs; Inks: Ken Landgraf and Willie E. Peppers), which clearly indicates who’s the real star in Power Stars. Tami takes the reader on a tour of Astroman’s home. First, she checks out a film that Astroman likes to watch titled “The Adventures of Krypto Man and his K-Dog, Super!” No subtlety here.
SIDENOTE: Apart from looking like Terra, Jacobs has Tami also talking like Terra (which was actually the most annoying part of Marv Wolfman’s character in New Teen Titans). Tami says stuff like, “Watch the hands, buster!” and “You’ll never hold me, you turkeys!” Everything she says is a lame insult and veiled threat. It’s extremely tiresome reading her dialogue. But I digress...
Tami watches a documentary about Astroman’s biggest enemies, such as The Croaker, The Infestor, The Furball, Parsnip Nose and Mr Boo! (Give Jacobs some credit for the imaginative names.)
At one point, a robot servant takes Tami on tour of Astroman’s private zoo. After seeing a bunch of monstrous aliens she’s confronted by a guy in a fedora.
“What is this creature?” she asks. “It almost looks human.”
“This is a mock journalist!” the robot replies. “Very dangerous! You don’t want to fool around with them. They are, if you excuse the term, bad news!”
Clearly, Jacobs was more bothered by Strnad’s review than he was letting on in his editorial.
Later, we see Astroman reminiscing about more of his arch-enemies including Professor Armand Geddon (a Dr Doom rip-off), The Bomany, Mr Zzxfzlzzxzlfzlk (guess who?), The Fleahound , Captain Vomit and Hitler Junior (!).
“Who knows?” muses Astroman. “With God’s help, some of them can be rehabilitated.”
Next, we see a double-page spread of Teen Titans knock-offs “the Teen Tranton” battling killer robots: “Wingknight” (aka Nightwing), “Mandroid” (aka Cyborg), “Presto” (Changeling), “Shadowhawk” (Raven), “Sunburst” (Starfire) and “Princess Power” (Wonder Girl).
Mandroid says, “We sure could use Geostar’s powers now! It’s a damn shame she betrayed us and got herself killed!” So now we know Tami’s codename.
The episode ends with Astroman visiting Tami in her bedroom after she’s had a nightmare and admitting to himself that he’s falling in love with her.

Mr Weird is a strange tale (well, all the strips are strange, but this one is stranger than most) of a Christian warrior fighting demonic creatures from the Lost Dimension that have invaded Earth to spread “atheistic communism”. Aiding Mr Weird as he takes his battle to the Lost Dimension is Jewish superhero “Ben Solomon” and “The Amazing Hypnoman”.
Although hideous creatures try to spew toxic vomit on them (seriously, there’s lots of spewing going on in this strip), our heroes defeat the boss demon through the power of Christ.
Yay, Jesus!
The last strip is – surprise, surprise – Tami in Rock Fever (Writer/penciller: Jacobs/Inkers: JohnJeff Potter and C. Bunker). In all her previous appearances, Tami has been depicted as a psychotic, rude, murderous bitch. Yet in this story she becomes a rock star with Astroman’s help. It’s played as total comedy and she comes across as quirky and almost likeable. It’s a surprising U-turn in the character’s development.  Astroman builds Tara an all-robot band – we’re then greeted with a gratuitous page of Tami cheesecake poses.
While Tami becomes an overnight sensation, Astroman spots a church and thinks, “Now it’s time to make some of my kind of music!” He sits in a pew, strums a guitar and sings Amazing Grace. I shit thee not.
Aaaaaaaaaand my mind is now officially MUSH.

In late October, Chris wrote to me that he’d written a letter to Jacobs: “I haven’t heard anything, but will let you know if I do! I offered to publish a collection of his!”

A collection of John Jacobs’ work? Hell, yeah! It’s long overdue!

FOOTNOTE: THIS remains my Holy Grail. Does it even exist?

1 comment:

Ryder Irvine said...

Hello, I recently found a copy of Power Stars Black Atlas featuring Astroman #1 & #2, but I cannot seem to put a value to them? Are they rare? Valuable? Any help is appreciated. Thanks!