From the Bookshelf: E-Man – Energy never dies, it’s redirected & redistributed

I remember it well, that first stack of comics. As a kid, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house when I was out of school during the summer months. One of the great things about it was that I had a lot of aunts & uncles, and I benefitted from their old books and toys. Part of that inheritance was a box of old comicbooks, which I spent many, many (so many) hours reading over and over again. Mostly a collection of Gold Key titles like Turok: Son of Stone, Magnus Robot Fighter, & Lost in Space, there were a handful of comics that featured an off the wall kind of superhero…

E-Man immediately grabbed me and didn’t let go. In the 70’s, the majority of superhero comics coming out of the Big Two were starting the swing toward darker themes, more adult storylines. Not so with E-Man. He was written with more of a humorous spin, wearing a bright orange & yellow costume. Born from the energies of a star going nova, this burst of pure energy gained sentience as it traveled through space in search of a home. Finding his way to Earth, the “Energy Man” made the acquaintance of Katrinka Colchnzski- brilliant college student by day, burlesque dancer Nova Kane by night- and took on the alias of Alec Tronn (heh) so that he could better walk among us and learn our  human ways.

Oh, and yeah… Nova might’ve been an early comicbook crush. She was very well drawn. More on her in a minute.

Anyway I grew up, as did my taste in comics (or so I thought). Over the years, I developed the prerequisite fascination with the likes of Spider-Man and Batman and I devoured various titles from DC & Marvel just like everyone else. But I always remembered those first books… Magnus, Captain Atom, and E-Man. Fast-forward a whole bunch of years, and I found myself wandering Artist Alley at Wizard World Chicago. I was doing my due diligence to earn that press pass for thePullbox, taking pictures & chatting with artists as I made my way up and down the hallowed aisles- Artist Alley really is my favorite part of any con- when a bright flash of orange and yellow caught my attention.

A large E-Man display! I started heading over that way to take a look, and found out that the artist & co-creator of one of my earliest superheroes, Joe Staton, was there with copies of a collected edition published by 1First Comics!

Did I buy a copy? You even have to ask? More importantly, I got to chat a bit with one of the guys who got me into comics in the first place.

Now I’m not gonna lie, I had my reservations about revisiting E-Man as an adult. I’ve gone back to read a few of those old comics, and lemme tell ya there are some of them that are better left to memory. I was worried that this childhood favorite wouldn’t hold up so yeah, it took me a while to work up the nerve. But eventually I did crack open my fresh new (and signed!) trade paperback to see how Alec Tronn and Nova Kane were doing these days.

Ready for the actual review now? I hope so, cuz I got words…

Working as an editor for Charlton Comics in the early seventies, Nicola Cuti had an idea… While Charlton had been doing just fine in their own niche, publishing romances, westerns and war stories, Cuti wanted to try his hand at a superhero title. Partnering with artist Joe Staton, the pair came up with something simultaneously recognizable & completely different. Cuti wanted a hero who was a bit of a throwback to the brighter days in comics, no jaded brooding allowed. With that in mind, he put pen to paper. Or maybe fingers to typewriter… it was the seventies.

Still impressive after all this time, Cuti crafted a really good read. Rather than writing down to his readers, Cuti was able to walk that fine line between “tongue in cheek” & just plain cheesy. The result was a hero who was a little bit naïve, who didn’t have all of the answers or always make the best decisions, but was able to fight the forces of evil with heart and determination. Also, with the help of his friend Nova Kane, E-Man was learning how to be human.

Okay, now let’s take a second to talk about Cuti’s treatment of Nova. Yes, she spent her nights as an exotic dancer. Yes, she was very well drawn. But before we go jumping to conclusions about her status as two-dimensional eye candy for readers and perpetual hostage fodder for E-Man’s enemies, let me clear that up a bit. Nova was no one’s misogynistic trope. She was written very intelligently by Cuti, and was probably more of a progressive step up for women in comics than some that are around today. No fridges for this lady, especially after E-Man transfers part of his energy to her, gifting Nova with powers equal to his own and cementing her status as a hero in her own right.

The other half of the E-Man equation is Joe Staton. His art is yet another aspect of his co-creation that has held up remarkably well over time. Staton’s work keeps mostly to the original concept of the title, being an upbeat, brightly lit comic that highlights the fantastically outrageous nature of superhero comics in general. However, by no means should he be written off as a one trick wonder. Some of these stories do swing into noirish shades of gray, allowing Staton to channel hints of Bernie Wrightson in his illustrations. In particular, there’s an arc featuring Michael Mauser, a hard-bitten world-weary detective, that leans away (just a bit) from E-Man’s normally bright & sunny look. But always, Staton brings things right back to the fun side, his style almost approaching the heart of satire as its default setting. It was awesome having the chance to meet him & talk a bit about the impact his work had on me, cultivating a lifelong love of the comicbook medium.

A couple weeks ago, I read that Nicola Cuti had passed away… While I don’t generally get particularly broken up over the deaths of celebrities, people I’ve never met and only knew through their performances or the work that they’ve done, this one bothered me. The passing of Mr. Cuti struck me as the end of a part of my youth that I’d held onto well into adulthood. Lying on the floor reading his work for probably the tenth or twentieth time is a memory that defines an important piece of my personal backstory. It had stuck with me to the extent that meeting Mr. Staton at a comic convention had me every bit as excited as when I met Frank Cho and Nathan Fillion, and I hadn’t even seen any of those old comics in decades. So the death of Nicola Cuti does sting, maybe a little more than it should, because he played a pretty major part in cultivating a love of comics that’s carrying over into my fifties.

E-Man remains every bit as quirky & off the wall as I remembered him to be, but far from coming across as outdated or past his prime, these old stories are still a blast to read. Nova Kane’s nighttime profession notwithstanding, this is a fantastic comic for kids who are ready for a little bit more than talking puppies & adaptations of Nickelodeon cartoons. The humor goes hand in hand with the notes of nostalgia, to pull readers back to a time when comics weren’t meant to be heavy reading… just fun.

Final Score: Sorry, our grading metric just doesn’t go high enough…

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