Saturday, September 23, 2006

Skywald, Gredown & Hell Rider

Hell Rider. One of the most under appreciated and rarely seen of all the Andru & Esposito works. I've seen more of their Golden and Silver Age works than this, and I've yet to find a single person with a page of original art from the series. Created by writer Gary Freidrich in 1971 for the now defunct Skywald company (better known for their horror magazines such as Psycho & Nightmare) the series featured art from the Andru & Esposito team and ran for a mere two issues. A third was advertised but no copies were ever printed and it appears it never got further than a cover mock up that appeared in an ad. The art team of Andru & Esposito came as no great surprise to me as the pair were Skywald's art directors at the time.

Here's what Mike Esposito had to say about Skywald recently:

Skywald was Sol Brodsky and I, with his friend Israel Waldman. Sol wanted to put out comic books so he called me up and said, “Mike, do me a favour, would you and Ross work for us?” I said, “Well we can’t”, and he said, “We’ll make you a deal and give you a contract to make you exclusive”. I said to Ross, “What do you think?” and he said, “Ah what the hell, let’s give it a shot. We’d rather not be freelance all the time”. They didn’t give contracts in those days with regular comics, so we did it.

He did the comics in black and white. Sol bought warehouses filled with original art from Fawcett, Fox Periodicals, Fiction House, all these independent companies that had long since been bankrupt. He bought carloads of that stuff and figured he’d print them again. All the copyrights were gone, titles like Blue Beetle, Sheena, all that stuff. He figured the smart way to do it was to put it out as a black and white magazine for twenty-five cents instead of a ten-cent comic book. It’d be cheaper to print, in black and white, and he’d put one new story with all the reprints. Ross and I would do the new story, the lead story.

After a while Skywald went under. The reason why nothing sold was because he had garbage. He was reprinting stuff that was so bad with beautiful covers painted by Boris. The covers were beautiful, but when you opened them up it was dreck. A couple of things weren’t bad. The ones that Ross and I did were The Heap and Hell Rider, a guy on his motorcycle. We wrote that and did that together and that wasn’t bad because it had a character that was today, not from forty years ago. He’d just pick things at random without thinking and say, “Print this and print this”. That was the problem. Like the jungle stuff that he had. We did a couple of jungle stories as the lead story for Sheena. Sheena was a lot of fun, but he never gave it a chance to develop beyond doing a reprint. We did Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid for him too. Ross and I had fun with that one because we had photos of the characters from the movie. It didn’t last and we got a call saying everything was dead and we had to go back to freelance.
Mike is being slightly disengenous with his memories there. Skywald folded for a variety of reasons, the least being that the comics were garbage. It's true that Skywald did put out a fair degree of crap, but which company hasn't? There's two distinct part of Skywald, the first era of Waldman and Brodsky, and the second era where the company was run by Al Hewetson. During Hewetson's reign the focus was more on original material and he utilised talent such as the Spanish International Studios along with emerging talent such as Pablo Marcos, Bernie Wrightson and Gene Day. Memory is a tenuous thing indeed. I'm not sure of the involvement of Andru & Esposito as writers of Hell Rider (the issues are credited to Friedrich alone barring at least exception) but the duo did write some horror stories for the company.

Now, where was I? Hell Rider. While writing the Andru & Esposito book I wanted to source these issues. That was my first problem. The stuff has never been reprinted since it originally appeared, with one exception (which I'll get to). In the meantime the original issues have skyrocketed in price as there's a run on anything bearing the Skywald imprint. Skywald collectors are as fanatical as any I've ever seen anywhere. And good on 'em. So they should be. It's like myself and the Newton line - there's a finite amount of product out there so, unlike Marvel or DC, you can own the entire company's output. As I'd not seen the books anywhere else, let alone the stories, I thought, well I'm gonna have to shell out a fair chunk of change. Then it happened.

We were in Melbourne for the Camberwell fair when a guy next to us pulled out a large box full of Australian reprint comics from the early to mid '70s. All the comics were virtually mint and knowing that these comics often have reprints from companies such as ACG, Media and Charlton Golden Age, and Charlton for Silver Age and often Atlas/Seaboard and Skywald I bought the lot, sight unseen. Sorting through them I came across several comics that are 'grails'* to me at least, and at the top of that pile were reprints of the two Hell Rider comics. BLISS! Pure black and white, as the originals were. They feature some of Andru & Esposito's more adventurous artwork, with Esposito using some inking methods that he'd not used before and wouldn't use since. Aided by Bill Everett (credited as providing 'Special Effects") the art was bold and showed Andru cutting loose on several pages with an abandon not unlike that he'd show on their own self-published magazine Up Your Nose, published at around the same time. In short these comics are damn good reads - the storyline might be a bit ropey, but the art is well worth the price of admission alone. Now sit back and feast your eyes upon two rarely seen comic books.

HELL RIDER #1

Published 1976, Gredown Pty Ltd.

Contents:
Introducing The Hell Rider by Gary Friedrich, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #1)
The Butterfly by Gary Friedrich, John Celardo & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #1)
Introducing The Wild Bunch by Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #1)
The Hell Rider: The Final Chapter by Gary Friedrich, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #1)

The first thing that leaps out is the altered cover art. The art was changed, different colours added and the background largely removed, all the blurb on the USA cover was removed, leaving just the images. The comic doesn't feature any of the text pieces that the original did, making this, as well as the second image, totally unique.

HELL RIDER #2

Published 1976, Greydown Pty, Ltd.

Contents:
Hell Rider: Night Of The Vampire Ripper by Gary Friedrich, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #2)
The Wild Bunch: Blood On Their Spokes by Gary Friedrich, Syd Shores & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #2)
Tough Cop by John Albano & Russ Heath (Thrilling Adventure Stories #2)
The Butterfly: Against The Brothers Of The Crimson Cross by Gary Friedrich & Rich Buckler (Hell-Rider #2)
Hell Rider: Shanghai… 70's Style by Gary Friedrich, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (Hell-Rider #2)

Now this issue is a stunner for many reasons. First the cover image is totally different to the USA original which you can also see here. Similar poses, but different images and different art. I have no idea where Gredown got the cover image for their second issues of Hell Rider as the image doesn't appear inside the book at all. Personally I think the cover works far better than the original, but it's all down to personal preference. But that's not all that makes this book unique.

If the more eagle eyed amongst you are looking at the contents and thinking, "Thrilling Adventure Stories, that wasn't published by Skywald," then you're right. That book was published by Atlas/Seaboard. Gredown, along with other companies that specialised in odd job comics used to throw anything into an issue to make up the page count. That often meant that you'd find an issue with all Skywald and one Atlas story, or an issue with all Atlas, or issues with a mix of material from publishers as diverse as Skywald, Charlton and ACG. It makes discovering these comics all the more exciting really, especially when you find one that has art from Ditko, Toth, Whitney and Wrightson. I've yet to see if there was a third issue of Hell Rider published in Australia, I doubt very highly there was. The material that was reprinted was almost always previously published. I'm loathe to give too much away right at this moment because I know that my pal Kevin Patrick is attempting to unravel the mysteries that surround these comics for a future issue of Collectormania and I have no desire to steal his thunder. Once that's appeared I'll see if Kevin will allow me to reprint what he's written so watch this space.

Until then I might post some more of these guilty gems!

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*Grail. In comic book circles this word is usually applied to finding a piece of original art that is a personaly 'holy grail', the ultimate find. As I keep looking for comics, sometimes the comics are grails to me.

3 comments:

Kevin Patrick said...

Hi Daniel - Wow, those Hell Rider reprints look great, don't they? I loved reading the few Atlas/Seaboard & Skywald titles that were reprinted here in Australia by Gredown Pty Ltd during the late 1970s.

As I mentioned in my previous emails to you about my upcoming article on Spanish comics in Australian reprint titles (for Collectormania magazine), the Art Director for Gredown Pty Ltd during the mid-late 1970s was a renowned Australian comic artist and commercial illustrator, Phil Belbin (1925-1993)

Check out this site for more info on Belbin:
http://www.collectingbooksandmagazines.com/pbelbin.html

Belbin drew/painted many, although not all, of the covers which were used on the Gredown reprints.

However, a glance at Gredown's edition of Hell Rider #2 makes me think this could be a Belbin cover painting. (Sadly, none of his cover illustrations were ever signed - or, perhaps, weren't printed with his signature!)

Belbin got his start with Frank Johnson Publications' line of Aussie comics back in the mid/late 1940s, but spent much of his career as a freelance illustrator/cartoonist for KG Murray - and I've seen a few of his distinctive cover paintings grace the covers of KGM's 1970s horror comic reprints, like Haunted Tales, etc.

So, it's kind of appropriate that Belbin wound up doing horror cover paintings for Gredown's comic book series in the 1970s.

I'm pretty sure he did the cover paintings for Gredown's one-shot reprints for 'Ironjaw' and 'Planet of the Vampires' (both reprints of Atlas/Seaboard material)

Mind you, I could be wrong about the Belbin connection here, but I think it's a reasoanably safe bet to make.

- Kevin Patrick

spiros said...

Guys, I've noted the signature "Bollesta" (or something like that)on more than one Australian horror reprint cover. The only example I can find right now is this one from Doomsday Album 10
http://www.ausreprints.com/content/main/?issue=2989
but I'm sure I've seen the credit on Gredowns too.
Do you guys know anything about this artist?
I've developed an interest in the Gredowns over the last few years. It began with an interest in Ditko reprints, and continued with a growing interest in pre-code horror reprints.

Cheers, Spiros.

Kevin Patrick said...

G'day Spiros

Yeah, I've seen your eBay 'handle' crop up on a few of those Gredown reprint auctions lately.

Wasn't aware that they'd had that much Ditko reprint material, but with Gredown, I guess it's more a case of whose work *didn't* they reprint, right?

I wouldn't be at all surprised if companies like KG Murray and Gredown used cover artwork (such as this 'Bolesta' [?] painter you've cited here) supplied from the same overseas publisher/syndicate.

Cleveland Publishing of Sydney, who continue to print those digest-sized pulp Western novels, has used Spanish/Euro cover paintings since the late 1960s/early 1970s - so it wouldn't surprise me that a sole european agency supplied all these local publishers with generic horror/western/sci-fi cover art for their local reprint titles.

Spiros, keep your eyes peeled for my November 2006 'Comics Down Under' column for Collectormania magazine, wherein I'll attempt to identify all the different 'Spaniards' who had a hand in packaging Aussie reprint comics during the 1970s.

(I'll try & arrange to have the article reprinted on Daniel's blog, if he has time/space to do so)

Cheers

- Kevin