Skywald, Gredown & Hell Rider
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
*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.