Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I Frank Thorne (a.k.a. Dude, I bought some porn!)

A while ago, I came to the realization that one of the reasons I like the art of Alex Toth is because he reminds me of Frank Thorne, a childhood favourite. Which is, I suppose, putting the horse before the cart. It's like realizing that you like Jack Kirby because he reminds you of Rich Buckler. Having overcome this seismic discovery, I've been getting some old MARVEL FEATUREs and RED SONJAs on eBay to pursue further my newfound fad for Thorne's work. Of course, as soon as I start trying to amass a complete run, it's announced in PREVIEWS that Sonja's new publisher, Dynamite, is to start reprinting these in facsimile editions of Dark Horse's CONAN reprints, complete with re-colouring and Roy Thomas essays. Fucking typical.

Thorne really divided the Marvel fans back in the seventies, and the letter columns of his titles were always full of kids, foreshadowing the Marvel Zombies of today who fill up the internet spilling their bile on message boards, who just didn't get his work. I can appreciate their distaste: the guy's work obviously came from a different lineage to the one they were used to. They wanted the Jack Kirby/Barry Windsor-Smith/John Buscema/Gil Kane school, but they got the Milt Canniff/Alex Toth/Hugo Pratt school instead. Eventually, Thorne got kicked off Sonja, replaced by just the sort of artists the kids wanted. The title died a death without him. I'd like to think the two events weren't unconnected, and that it turned out Thorne was actually the heart and soul of Sonja. Every subsequent attempted revival by Marvel was short-lived.

So Frank Thorne falls off my radar, only coming back on it when I'm a teenager. It's the new golden age of comics, and one of the handful of new publishers pressing the big two for the centre ground is Comico, who publish Matt Wagner's MAGE and GRENDEL. Eventually, like First and Eclipse, they'll fall by the wayside due to poor business practices, but in the meanwhile they publish Thorne's RIBIT!, a sci-fi piece about a young green adventuress and her wacky friends. Its okay, I have all four issues in a box upstairs somewhere, but it's a very long time since I bothered to look at them. It marries two of Thorne's preoccupations nicely: big eyed chicks, and Lovecraftian monsters, only this time in a Sci-Fi milieu. But never once back then did I ask myself the obvious and important question, what was Frank Thorne doing between getting kicked off Sonja at the end of the seventies, and starting Ribit at the end of the eighties? Well, I finally got round to asking myself that very question.

When investigating when exactly he got the boot from Marvel over at the
Grand Comic Book Database, I found out the answer to that and more. And what did he do after Marvel? It turns out the answer is pretty much... porn. Okay, that's maybe a little harsh. Smut, maybe. Erotica, even. No wonder the guy was off my radar as a kid. He was doing work for nascent "grown up" comics such as HEAVY METAL and Warren's 1984, as well as adult magazines such as NATIONAL LAMPOON and PLAYBOY. Here's a guy who's been working as a footsoldier in the comic book industry since the forties, twenty years man and boy, drawing westerns, war stories, horror. I wouldn't say he's a hack, he's clearly respected by his peers, certainly enough to be headhunted by Marty Goodman's shortlived but influential experiment in comicbook starpower, Atlas/Seaboard Comics (alongside heavy-hitters such as Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko and a young Howard Chaykin). So he's 45, it's the mid-seventies. He's got his highest profile assignment ever. His work on Red Sonja seems to give him a second wind, he's producing his best work, and he's gaining in both fame and, due to the mixed reaction to his work, notoriety. After his work at Marvel is unfortunately curtailed, he finds new doors opening up to him. Essentially, due to Red Sonja and his cause celebre, he has unexpectedly gotten a second career. He's in demand. Without even trying, he's became the industry's illustrator of foxy fantasy chicks du jour. So there you go: F Scott Fitzgerald was obviously talking out of his arse when he said that there's no second acts in American lives.

Now here's the really unexpected bit: I went ahead and investigated this previously unknown to me aspect of this old favourite's work. I ordered GHITA OF ALIZZAR through an Amazon marketplace seller. I didn't expect anything from his adult work other than the usual opportunities for gratuitous nudity and innuendo. Basically, RED SONJA only with her knockers out. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, there was smut in abundance. Sure, the lead character looked enough like Sonja to be almost laughable in its shamelessness. But the writing turned out to be tremendously strong and vital. The lasciviousness made the characters more, rather than less, believable. It was, no shit, as good an attempt at the Fantasy genre as I've ever read in the comics medium. It's great when you go into something with little or no expectations, and the experience turns out to be so worthwhile. So now I think I'll try and dig up more by Thorne from this period: I have nothing to lose except my reputation with the postal service. "Dude, got some more cartoon porn for ya!"

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