Cartoonist, Writer, Collaborator: What I Learned From Stan Lee

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

The world of comics and pop culture in general lost a titan this week when Stan Lee, the biggest driving force behind Marvel Comics died at the age of 95. His impact on comic book fans can’t be measured. Neither can his impact on comics creators.

Lee started with a company called Timely Comics in 1939, working mostly with largely forgotten kids fare. The publisher struck gold with their Captain America stories, but didn’t do much to expand the concept. By the early 1960s, however, Timely rebranded as Marvel Comics and Lee was tapped to began crafting a new world of allies for Cap, as well as competitors for DC’s superheroes who had been off and running (and flying and teleporting) for a couple of decades.

stan lee spideyHis first creation was The Fantastic Four, which was an immediate hit with readers. Within a few years, Hulk, Iron Man, and of course, his biggest success, Spider-Man were spinning tales of adventure of their own.

As a cartoonist myself, (insert shameless plug here), Stan Lee surprisingly wasn’t an early influence on me. See, my Grandmother worked for Western Publishing, whose Gold Key comic books included titles from Disney, Looney Tunes, DePatie-Freling, and Walter Lantz. So that’s what I grew up on. They weren’t Marvel or DC comics, and aside from Super Goof, they didn’t include any superheroes. So I started drawing in the vein of those Gold Key titles. All by myself.

And there was Charles Schulz, whose “Peanuts” comic strip was in its creative heyday. Schulz famously said “If I were a better artist, I’d be a painter, and if I were a better writer, I’d write books — but I’m not, so I draw cartoons!” Made total sense to me. If I was ever going to make it in this business, I would probably have to go it alone. I gravitated towards becoming a newspaper comic strip artist, writing and drawing short, snappy jokes, often in the framework of a longer tale. But still a solo venture.

As I got a bit older and MAD magazine seemed less inappropriate (is MAD ever really appropriate at any age?), the idea of separate writers and artists began to appeal to me. But could someone really be a “cartoonist” if they only did one part of that equation? Did it matter if the end result was enjoyable to the reader?

stan lee marvel coversSo in a similar vein, I finally started to appreciate Stan Lee a bit later, in college, as I began collaborating with other creative types on class projects. Lee was primarily the writer of the ideas, but was still considered still a “cartoonist” in the fullest sense. Would Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko have ever drawn those dynamic action panels of The Thing if Lee didn’t feed them the idea, the character, the inspiration? Would those ideas sear such vivid memories without their action-packed art?

stan lee hulk thingSuddenly, for me, the Charles Schulz approach had some competition as a way to do comics. If a solo cartoonist could crank out 7 pages a week, a writer and artist could crank out 14 together. Same amount of work for each, just divvied up differently. And a lot less lonely.

Stan Lee was supposed to be the keynote guest at the 2013 Denver Comic Con, but had to withdraw at the last minute. Fans were disappointed, but for many, this felt kind of urgent. It seemed like he was getting up there in years and might not be able to make it to a future con, due to the inevitability of declining health or worse. We all wondered if we would ever get the chance to meet him.

But he came to Denver in 2016, and all was right with the world of superhero fandom.

I was at that Con, but didn’t get to meet him. As a cartoonist with a table full of books to sell, I couldn’t afford to step away for a few hours to stand in line for a photo, an autograph, and a brief word. As a cartoonist who was inspired by Lee, I regret missing the opportunity.

stan lee dccThese days, it almost feels like actual comic books are a by-product of the Marvel Entertainment machine. And yet comic book stores are full of fans and readers hotly debating the latest developments in new artists or writers being assigned to a particular title and whether a certain pairing worked well. Stan Lee probably would enjoy being there, watching comics being debated as such important fare.

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Jerry Lewis

Both of my nephews credit Stan Lee, not their schools, with teaching them how to read and certainly inspiring them to do more creative work such as videos and films.

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“Marvelocity” Covers The Marvel-ous Career of Alex Ross

alex ross marvelocity

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

It’s been 15 years since the the publication of “Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross,” a hefty collection of his fine art approach to superhero storytelling. But in the last decade, it would seem that Marvel has overtaken DC, certainly in the cinematic world, so it’s a good time his work for Marvel to get the same treatment. “Marvelocity: The Marvel Comics Art of Alex Ross” is the latest pean to his high art. (In between, there have been several other collections of Ross’ work as well as a 2018 art exhibit of his art inspired by ideas from Stan Lee, the Marvel legend who died this week at the age of 95.)

alex ross marvelocityFirst of all, this book is huge and heavy. Even the dust jacket contributes to the heft; once you open it, the cover unfolds again and again into a long gatefold tapestry of alternate covers of super portraits. It’s like a pre-credit honor roll before you even get into the actual book. There’s even a large poster of an alternate cover concept with Spider-Man as the focus instead of Captain America.

Instead of black lines filled with garish colors, Alex Ross’ work is more of a realist painting. While the traditional comics style is full of wonder and fantasy, his more photographic approach actually makes the characters seem more human and possibly vulnerable and relatable. The heroic nature of his style might play more effectively with heroes instead of villains. In fact, the vast majority of the book is devoted to the good guys.

alex ross marvelocityComics critics have always struggled to classify Ross’ art style. To say he’s a cartoonist seems to sell him a bit short, as he’s almost a portrait artist who happens to work with incredibly dynamic subjects. On the other hand saying he’s NOT a cartoonist is kind of an insult to him (and everyone else in the industry as well.) Let’s just say Ross is a fine portrait artist working in a different medium. For several years, his illustrations have been used only on the covers, although the almost photographic quality ensures that the drawings inside will be consistently designed and composed. Beyond the covers, he’s always been heavily involved in the development of the look and the storylines of his comics.

alex ross marvelocityNowhere is his talent better illustrated (literally) than a spread which shows the iconic cover of “Captain America” issue 1, where Cap punches Hitler while Nazis futilely fire back. Next to the original is Ross’ recreation of this cover for “Captain America: Sam Wilson” number 7 in 2016. The overall composition is the same, right down to the vintage look of his costume and the inset of “Captain America’s Young Ally BUCKY.” Except the distorted artistic license of comic characters gives way to a more physically real arrangement. And instead of speed lines and crosshatching and bursts, the rendering looks more like a photo of that historic moment.

alex ross marvelocityThere are several other side by side comparisons that also serve as appreciation for how Jack Kirby and countless other artists had to work with older printing technology that made all those black lines and bright colors necessary. Ross was particularly busy with this sort of homage around Marvel’s 75th Anniversary.

alex ross marvelocityThere are a lot of sketches included, which really helps you appreciate Ross’ talent as a panel composer. The dynamic poses that Kirby pioneered come to life bit by bit, side by side. It’s not just pretty pictures, of course. Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear spells the story behind the art with the knowledge that only comics insiders like them can tell. Add in some outsider perspective with an introduction by J. J. Abrams, as well as reflections by other comics dignitaries, and there’s a pretty broad base of tribute and expertise.

alex ross marvelocityRoss has always been deeply involved in the overall creation and writing of his comics characters and stories. And his talent for composing a panel has been put to good use not only in comics, but also in storyboards for some of Marvel’s movies. Anyone with an appreciation of the Marvel universe in any form – comics, action figures, movies – should appreciate this book.

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The Evolution of Lego Minifigs, Brick by Brick

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Lego is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the the Minifigure this year, but the history of block-based humans goes back further than that. So let’s take a look at The Evolution of Lego Minifigs (and their blocks in general) over the last 50 or so years.

The first Lego building sets were designed to build, well, buildings. Vehicles weren’t something that needed to be constructed, because Lego originally made separate, somewhat realistic cars and trucks to go with these sets. Those lines were eventually discontinued, so eventually the first wheel sets to be added so kids could build cars and trucks. But it would take several more years (and a change in scale) to bring about anyone to drive those vehicles.

Lego patent printsLego’s’s first wheel and tire pieces had a 2×2 stud arrangement in the middle of the hub. A human figure scaled to that size would need to be about 4 inches tall. Those would probably bee too big and require too many new parts, so Lego balked at the idea at the time.

The first Lego Minifigs appeared in 1975, along with smaller wheelsets. This was from the days when Lego blocks came only in black, white, red, yellow, and blue. And green baseplates. And clear window bricks. And a few gray pieces, but only technical ones like wheel mount blocks. (Okay, they actually had a quite few different colors going on back then.) And just like that, the Lego universe was dominated by a scale somewhere around 1/48.

Oh, and they weren’t officially called Minifigures yet. But we’ll go with that term for now.

The original Minifig head shape was a bit of a departure for Lego, as round pieces were not part of the universe yet aside from wheels. Also, the diameter of the head was a bit wider than a single stud brick, so it couldn’t be used in certain tight areas. But the shape and size just seemed right, so it stuck. The body had no moving parts, so fitting a character into a car wasn’t really even a consideration. Most of the time, adding a passenger meant just setting aside the legs and installing the torso and head. Some new bespoke pieces included a police hat, a farmer’s hat, and a bit later, simple male and female hair pieces.

lego original minifigsAnother feature lacking in Lego blocks at the time: There were no graphics printed on any of them. Some sets came with stickers, but permanent markings were years away. So that meant blank head pieces at first.

The heads did come with a new feature that was fraught with possibility. The diameter of the neck was perfect for nesting in the middle of of a 2×2 array of studs, meaning it could be centered in a way that threw the entire grid into a new dimension. That may be overstating things a bit, but soon after those pieces came out, smaller cylindrical parts debuted that had the same feature. Coupled with the happy accident that a 1/3 thickness plate could stand on edge between the studs, suddenly the world of Lego was pointing in all kinds of new directions.

lego first minifigs1978 brought a major evolutionary step in the Minifig. Moving arms and legs, as well as printed features including faces. Early ones had only one expression, a simple, noseless happy face. And they were yellow.  (Different facial features would not appear until 1989 with the first Pirate sets, and eventually, heads with faces on the front and back would become the norm.)

lego piratesThe legs fit the same dimensions as the early non-moving ones, but the torsos were now wider, as the arms stuck out from the width of the body. While we’ve become accustomed to this style, it did lead to some changes in the engineering of Lego kits. If you’ve noticed how real cars are getting bigger and bigger (along with the average real person), it’s happening in Legoland, too.

Vehicles, previously 4 studs wide at this scale, suddenly became six or eight studs wide. And that was to accommodate a single, centrally seated passenger. For them to sit side by side required space between the seats, as well as space on the sides.

lego space minifig1979 saw possibly the most important development in Lego history… the introduction of Lego Space sets. These featured new wing shapes in several sizes, new clear canopy parts (even molded in translucent colors!) and cylindrical and cone pieces. And a lot more gray bits. The characters now had a spiffy space helmet option and back mounted airtanks. (The tanks attached by being placed on the neck before the head went on, making the space people just a bit taller.) Sales rocketed (sorry!) to new heights, and kids fell in love with the new parts.

For several years, the yellow brick head and hands remained the standard. The folks at Lego liked the idea that even though only one skin tone existed, it really didn’t match any actual human hue, so in a sense they represented everyone and anyone. It also meant characters couldn’t wear yellow for the most part, as they looked sort of naked.

Around the turn of the century, Lego was struggling financially. Their toys were immensely popular and beloved, but costs were spiraling out of control. In order to keep up the precise, durable quality of the brand, they had to raise prices just enough to become an issue with consumers. Also, there were some issues with protecting the copyrights on their designs, so competitors popped up, some with lower prices, most with lower quality.

lego star wars minifigsThen came the first licensed sets. And despite the extra cost for the licensing rights, they were a huge hit. Instead of generic characters, buildings, and cars, these sets represented real fictional characters (if that makes sense). 1999 saw the first “Star Wars” sets, and more evolution came about. While the bodies mostly remained the same shape and size, new helmets and hair were introduced. And for some of the monsters, new molds were created, with head shapes almost completely devoid of lego simplicity. A shorter leg piece was introduced for the Yoda figure. And in 2003, for the first time, more realistic skin tones were used. By then, the color palette for other bricks had exploded into the dozens, so this didn’t seem too earth or space shattering.

lego ninjagoLego managed to right the financial ship by creating their own new original universes that didn’t require any additional licensing fees. The Ninjago series, introduced in 2011 has been one of their most popular lines ever. And best of all, it brought back the traditional yellow skin tones. Throw in the success of “The Lego Movie” and other assorted video game and entertainment properties, and the company is brick solid again.

The Lego Miniverse is now filled with thousands of different Minifigs of all shapes, sizes and colors. Superheroes (DC, Marvel and Pixar), Pirates (Caribbean and otherwise), wizards, and all sorts of movie and TV tie-ins can peacefully coexist in one toybox. Most licensed Minifigs now go with an approximation of the character’s skin tone, but there has been a notable recent exception.

lego simpsonsThe whole bricktone thing was all brought home with the first Simpsons set in 2014. While each character had distinctly molded heads, they were once again yellow, which in a way, makes them the most Lego-y of all characters.

What is your favorite Lego Minifig? Let us know in the comments!

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For Halloween, You’re Gonna Need an Ambulance or Hearse

1/64 scale ambualnce

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Halloween is a holiday associated with walking, specifically around the neighborhood seeking candy from neighbors. But if you need to drive on that date, there’s only one choice. Well, two actually: ambulance or hearse.

Both vehicles connote a kind of morbidity… one posthumously, one, umm… pre-posthumously? Humously? The point is, death, gore, all kinds of spooky stuff are easily associated with those vehicles, and even though they aren’t technically Halloween oriented, they fit right in.

johnny lightning surf hearseLet’s be more specific, though… we’re talking about car-based versions of these transports, not vans or other bespoke vehicles. Back in the day, coach building companies took standard sedans, stretched the wheelbase, extended the windshield upward, and added a long roof to create the basis for hearses and ambulances. There’s something kind of, well, ostentatious about a Cadillac hauling you to the hospital when a Chevrolet would do just fine. On the other hand, a Caddy hearse exudes a necessary touch of dignity and class to your final ride to the grave.

matchbox ambulance hearseSo, something about a vintage Caddy with curtains in the back just speaks to this holiday. There have been numerous models of these car-based body haulers built over the years, but let’s focus on 1/64 versions.

matchbox ambulance hearseMatchbox has offered a number of ambulances of all types in all their scales, often with removable stretchers and other goodies. When the early Benz “Binz” cars upgraded to SuperFast wheels, it was righteous fun. In the U.S., Caddy is far and away the leader in the hearse business. And they have been for a really long time. The long wheelbase helps, but really, any car can be modified into a hearse. Matchbox has since gone on to create various other models, mostly mid 1960s Cadillac based cars.

hot wheels 59 cadillac funny carHot Wheels has gotten into the Hot Hearse business as well, with the understatedly named ’59 Cadillac Funny Car casting. This thing is heavy, has a flip up body, and that’s all you need to know. And the 100% Hot Wheels Line also included a less souped-up 1963 Caddy hearse in several colors.

hot wheels 53 cadillac flower carOn a side note, there is also a Hot Wheels Custom ’53 Cadillac that looks like an El Camino’d coupe with a soap box derby car in the back. This is actually based on the old flower cars that used to be part of a funeral procession, so, yeah, that kinda counts.

hot wheels ecto 1Oh, did you think we forgot about Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters? Fun fact: The car used for the Ecto-1 was not a hearse, but an ambulance. In the original movie you actually get to see it briefly in gray primer, and honestly… it might be more awesome in that livery. The recent remake used a 1980s Caddy, which worked a lot better than it sounds on paper. Hot Wheels has them covered in multiple scales, even.

harold and maude hearseOf course, the greatest movie hearse of all time is Harold Chasen’s custom E-Type Jaguar hearse from Harold and Maude. There are a few larger scale models available, but 1/64-ish cars are hard to come by. Many folks have customized them over the years, like the Aurora ThunderJet slot car above. It’s the way Harold would do it, of course.

johnny lightning surf hearseJohnny Lightning has had some fun with hot rod hearses based on larger scale models. The dual engine Haulin’ Hearse dragster and the stately (even in lavender with flowers) Heavenly Hearse surf wagon were both based on kits made by Jo-Han.

johnny lightning meat wagonEven more fun was the Meat Wagon, a customized 1937 Packard Ambulance, based on a plastic kit by Aurora. This model also came decorated in honor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a few other schemes. All of the smaller JL models were available in other livery (or should that be dead-ery?).

johnny lightning 57 chevy hearseOf course, they did a version of the Ecto-1 and repurposed that casting with surf boards. Heck, the folks at Playing Mantis would stick surfboards on just about anything given the chance. And there was even a 1957 Chevy Bel Air  hearse. Remember what I said earlier about being driven to the grave in a Chevy? I take it back, that would be pretty cool.

zylmex mash ambulanceZylmex had an interesting ambulance model in the late 1970s. Detail is crude, but it appears to be a 1953 Chevy. It came decorated in olive drab with M*A*S*H decals. It was part of a series of toys and playsets from the TV show. What’s not to like there?

There are also a lot of sedan delivery or panel wagon models of all kinds that would make excellent hearses and ambulances, with or without surfboards, but let’s not beat this topic to death. Can you think of any 1/64 models we didn’t include here? Let us know in the comments six feet below.

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Anne Stewart

Creeptastic!

 

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Mini Matchbox Models Create a Big Mystery

mini matchbox prototypes

Compared to a standard 1/64 Matchbox truck, these mystery models are tiny.

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

While digging through our latest stash of Matchbox prototype cars, we discovered models of a couple of tiny vehicles. They were much smaller than the usual Matchbox offerings. Unsure of what they were, we started sleuthing around. We asked our trio of former Matchbox designers for insight: Rob Romash, Matchbox Master Model Maker; Steve Moye, Matchbox Designer; and Glenn Hubing, Matchbox Model Painter.

As it turns out, these were two concepts for a Mini Matchbox sub-brand. Galoob’s Micro Machines were immensely popular throughout the ‘90s, spawning playsets and carrying cases. In fact for a few years, they outsold Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Majorette… combined. So it made sense for Mattel to tap into the tiny car market. In the early 2000s, Matchbox explored the idea, commissioning some unlicensed, futuristic tiny vehicles. The two designs you see here are among the few they worked on but ultimately never produced.

mini matchbox prototypes

There are painted and unpainted castings of the fire engine.

The two vehicles are a police car and a fire engine, a pair of can’t-miss tropes for toy cars. Each one appears in two stages of the prototype process: A plain, early resin casting, and a highly detailed painted version. In all likelihood, due to the scale, the cars were designed to be molded as a single piece body with the windows painted instead of being separate clear pieces.

mini matchbox prototypes

The collection features painted and unpainted castings of the police car, too.

A couple of things stand out on these designs. First, while much smaller than a typical 1/64 vehicle, they are bigger than the standard Micro Machines car (2.75 inches long vs. 2 inches). The fire engine actually comes close to the Micros trucks size, but the police car is huge by comparison to their cars. Second, they sit up pretty high. The mounts for the axles are below the rest of the chassis, so the finished cars would ride like a monster truck or a donk. Also, there are no cutouts in the fenders to allow the wheels to recess into the body, so they would sit completely outside or the body work.

mini matchbox prototypes

Compared to Micro Machines cars, the Mini Matchbox cars were sort of big.

It’s possible the final designs were supposed to have the wheels situated a bit closer to the mass of the car, but since these are painted prototypes, it seems the shape is close to the what was intended for production. Sadly, we may never know the full intent of the designs.

hot wheels atomix

Hot Wheels briefly offered the Atomix line including teeny models of popular 1/64 designs.

Meanwhile, Hot Wheels produced the Atomix series of cars, close in size to the Micro Machines. The first ones came packaged as a bonus vehicle on some 2002 mainline cars. The early designs were based on existing Hot Wheels cars such as the Deora II and the Snake and Mongoose funny cars (which even featured flip up bodies!) They were eventually released in sets, of usually five or so vehicles.

speedeez mini cooper

Playmates’ Speedeez cars were Micro Machine sized but had ball bearings for speed. They also had large scale models that folded out into crazy playsets.

For some reason, when Hasbro acquired the Micro Machines brand, they dropped the ball on it, allowing it to more or less disappear (aside from licensed sets such as the Star Wars sets). In fact, all the brands of micro sized cars (such as Speedeez by Playmates Toys) pretty much vanished by the mid 2000s. But why?

The cars sold well, but displaying a collection was tricky. The cars themselves were tiny, but the packaging was huge by comparison, since they usually sold in sets of 5 or 10 cars. But the most obvious answer is that the cars were tiny enough to be considered choking hazards. It doesn’t seem like there was an epidemic of kids eating tiny cars, but it probably wasn’t worth the potential legal headache. For Matchbox, it was over before it began.

Whatever the reason for the quick end of the Micro cars, if you’re a serious collector, you might want to grab these very rare examples. Yep, they’re for sale in the hobbyDB Marketplace! They might fill a big hole you never knew was in your collection.

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Christian Falkensteiner

In this context it should be mentioned that already before the Mattel takeover, Matchbox produced two ranges of smaller model cars: "Superfast Minis" and "World's Smallest Matchbox". They did not last very long, only from 1990 to 1992 approximately, so they probably were not overly successful. 1992 was the year when Matchbox ownership passed from Universal to Tyco, so it seems Tyco was not interested in continuing those ranges.

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