Comics history and scholarship is a fraught process. As Bart Beatty has pointed out in his book Comics Versus Art, early scholarship was essentially fan scholarship – newsletters, fanzines, amateur essays, and convention talks. As comics has grown in respectability, clocking serious research within academic institutions, there has been a movement to remove it from the warm, fuzzy, adoring paws of fan appreciation. Luckily, Alex and Jim (or Jim and Alex) refrain from transmuting their considerable knowledge into the cold hallowed capital of academia; they retain the accessibility of Siskel and Ebert, employ the camaraderie of Bert and Ernie, and the deductive drive of Starsky and Hutch! By gum, in their hands, comics history is everyday history! And history of the world is comics history!
Scotch in hand, Jim Thompson (on the right) and Alex Grand (on the left) shop till they drop. When the wives are away, the Historians come out to play.
Enough about our heroic historians: let’s look at the book! A slim softcover volume at little more than 55 pages, it chronicles a two hour telephone conversation between the Historians and Frank Thorne in August 2019 for their podcast. Thorne died on March 7th, 2021, at ninety years old, leaving a legacy of adoring fans and an art career that began contiguous to the inception of American comics. An extremely skilled artist and musician, Thorne studied professionally but began contributing illustrations and comics for publication in his teens. He drew strips as well as comic stories in an accomplished style that sometimes was heavily influenced by the artists he admired – like Alex Raymond – but the seventies would bring Thorne to Marvel where he worked on Red Sonja, having developed a sinuous and passionate style of his own. When this brought consternation from the higher ups who wished to foist an inker onto Thorne’s art in order to bring it in line with Marvel’s house style, Thorne walked, developing Ghita of Alizaar, a Sonja like character that allowed him more freedom to pursue his fleshy visions and express an adult sensibility. Other adult oriented gigs for Playboy, Heavy Metal, and National Lampoon soon followed, cementing Thorne’s reputation.
This was only abetted by the proto-cosplay performances he gave in blue wizard gear, assisted by Wendy Pini and others. This image of himself as a dirty old wizard, we are told in the book, was the yin to the yang of his personal life: that of a dedicated family man who was religious and worked hard rather than partying it up. The two hour interview has been broken into different chapters that chronologically address different phases of Thorne’s career. Jim and Alex don’t insert themselves overbearingly into the conversation, but it does feel like a conversation instead of cold reportage. Sometimes, the interviewers’ knowledge is used to reframe and contextualize what Thorne says (he’s produced an incredible amount of work over a very long career) and at other times, Alex and Jim garnish their questions with appreciation or reactions to Thorne’s work. It feels as if Alex is the lead interviewer but that makes perfect sense as it was his contact who set up the process in the first place. As someone who has not read any of Thorne’s work (I’m not an aficionado of sword and sorcery or erotica, though I will read them if something warrants), I found the interview easy to follow, not to mention informative. There are some black and white images of the comics discussed but there needs to be more if an initiate is to see the breadth and depth of Thorne’s legacy. The number of illustrations run to a mere five pages and they are murky colourless scans to boot – I know that securing licenses to reprint certain pages and the cost of colour can be prohibitive, as can finding clear scans of the original art as opposed to published pages, but I’d urge our intrepid historians to spend more resources in this department for future volumes. Given that comics are such a visual medium and so much of the interview deals with visuals, they do themselves a disservice by skimping on the art.
The book has been printed on light materials which means the soft cover will not stand the test of time – in fact, it is almost like a non-glossy magazine. It reminds me of the fly-by-night comics journalism publications that were printed in the eighties – fun, and produced with a great deal of passion, but hardly built to last. Given Jim and Alex’s clout as historians, I’d like to see them put out compendiums that sit on the shelf with the other great works on comics. One option might be to wait until they have a thick collection of interviews and scholarship to shill and then put out a single volume produced to the nines. Another option might be to go the other way and continue to put out key interviews but make them single comic-length floppies instead of books. Comic length issues would be marketable because they could be mocked up to evoke comics themselves in a fun and nostalgic manner. Having an actual price on the publication would help make them marketable also as this current publication has none. The text of the interview could easily be formatted to fit within the 22 pages of such a floppy, leaving enough space for key illustrations. Right now, for some inexplicable reason, Jim and Alex have formatted the text in their book in a large font ‘with enough space in between to drive a truck’ as a crabby ex-teacher of mine might say. Why they do this – to pad the book or perhaps out of concern for the potentially geriatric demographic of their readership – is hard to say. As Kenan Thompson of SNL is wont to quip during his TCM Channel sketches, “I am not a good guesser.”
All kidding aside, I loved reading this, especially as someone who only thought of Thorne in a peripheral way. I’d read about him in We Told You So, the exhaustive oral catalogue of Fantagraphics’ history, but that only enforced the kind of image radiating from Thorne’s cosplay and buxom friends. Alex and Jim’s interview fills out other facets that aren’t exhaustive but certainly point in directions to be explored. I realize that everybody’s a back seat driver at times, as am I – I just happen to get paid for it (not well, but who’s complaining?) – and that despite their formidable knowledge, it might be charitable of us to remember that Alex and Jim are like the rest of us intense fans, trying to find intellectual rigour and historical succor in the materials that they love.
The aspects of the book I love most are the personal essays which frame the book like bookends. Jim and Alex both write about how they discovered Thorne’s work, their reactions to it, and why they were eager to talk with the great man. They maintain a strictly appreciative and informed tone whereas I, with the erratic amblings of a drunk hermit crab, might have asked more invasive questions of such a personal nature they might have been deemed indecent, even by the author of Moonshine McJugs. I might have asked Thorne about this aspect of his work, the buxom flesh, the relentless focus on the female, the pornographic respiration. We live in a time when we still have not resolved our attitudes towards pornography, whether it is healthy or oppressive, whether it should be looked at as wide eyed fun or examined critically for perfidious toxicity.
We cannot ignore the gender iniquities in society or comics societies anymore and though that should not be used as justification to cancel works of culture, it should not be shied away from either. I recently wrote a profile about the Welsh artist David Roach who also focuses on the female form. Though David Roach does not draw erotica (to my knowledge), both he and Thorne are rooted in a fascination (perhaps even fixation) over the power of female sexuality and the fantasy it exudes. This level of erotic fantasy is much more powerful than the sword play where ‘men are men’ and women are also ‘men’ and the stagey magic if you ask me. The real fantasy gluing the genre together is this fetish like eroticism (the same can be said to a lesser degree about superhero comics). It occurs to me that another similarity might be that both Thorne and Roach didn’t/don’t run around like crazed sexpots in real life, resulting in a great degree of this erotic energy being transfused into their work. It’s alluded to very briefly in Alex and Jim’s book, especially when Thorne mentions discovering Sheena comics for the first time or when Thorne talks about his work for Playboy magazine but the two redoubtable historians don’t press further, as if pressing further might disrupt the reverence that is necessary to be maintained for the interview to proceed.
If more works are planned for this series (and I sincerely hope they are!), I’d love to see the lads tackle some of the social intersections of culture which they examine. Not in a negative or critical way necessarily, but more in a philosophical and investigative way: how might different women react to reading Sonja and Ghita, now or when they came out? What does the work do to empower women and what does it do to hold them back? What are the benefits of worshipping comic book characters like goddesses and to what extent does sublimation of this erotic energy inhibit other creative directions? Are these comics accessible to all readers and audiences, and should they be? Should there be comics that tackle erotic themes head on in a more intensive, concentrated, and even realistic manner? Would the frank discussion of sexual performance be more productive than the slapping of cold chainmail against goose pimpled buttocks? I don’t know. But they’re questions worth asking. As Kenan Thompson says, “I am not a good guesser.”
Below are some quotations from the book that I enjoyed:
Thorne on Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s brother):
“I enjoyed Larry Lieber very much. He drew. His brother couldn’t draw, but Larry drew quite well and also wrote quite well. Nobody ever hears of Stan Lee’s brother, but neither of them had any hair. That was the thing. Stan would prance around with a toupee…”
Thorne on leaving Marvel:
“Stan asked me to come in. He wanted to talk to me and a couple of other guys. And they were concerned that my Sonja was the only book in the series that didn’t look like a Marvel book, and they wanted all of the Marvel books to look like Marvel books. So they wanted possibly to put an inker on me, and that’s when I said, “Farewell, and it’s been wonderful.” And I went on to Ghita of Alizarr.”
Jim on having read Red Sonja #1:
“If you’re reading these words, but wondering what they mean, take a time-out and go experience “The Blood of the Unicorn” from Red Sonja #1 (1976). It’s the moment in the series that Thorne converted my lust for Sonja to love, as he drew panel after panel of Sonja at rest, happy; or Sonja frolicking with her unicorn. Thorne correctly interpreted this story as a courtship, a romance not lessened by its brevity. Every page was visual poetry – it had music, it had meter and it’s still one of my favorite Marvel comics of all time.”
Frank Thorne the Blue: Wizard of the Comic Arts is available now from Comic Book Historians press.
Alex Grand and Jim Thompson’s published interview with Frank Thorne, Frank Thorne the Blue: Wizard of the Comic Arts isCOMICONRead More