The Too-Short and Not-Discussed-Enough Career of Alan Zelenetz
One of the first comics I ever read was What If...? #35, featuring a Frank Miller story in which Elektra was not killed by Bullseye. It was an introduction to comics and is one of the examples I use to show that you can actually jump on most titles in the middle of the action, and was the first exposure I had to Frank Miller's legendary Daredevil and all the characters herein.
But that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the dude who wrote the second story, "What if Yellowjacket had died?", featured on the bottom part of the cover. That man was Alan Zelenetz, whose name hadn't really registered in my mind until recently, even if he wrote a story in a comic I read to pieces as a kid.
The creator of Alien Legion (the concept essentially being "The French Foreign Legion in Space"), Zelenetz didn't have a long or prolific comics career. You can view his bibliography here, but like his What If... story being overshadowed by Frank Miller, a legend, Zelenetz's career seemed overshadowed also by the people around him. He was a good, not great, writer, who wrote some entertaining stories. And when you're good, not great, following a great writer or being followed by a great writer is going to make a big difference when it comes to how you're remembered. For example, he wrote three issues of Master of Kung-Fu, now a cult classic and beloved by many fans, but he wrote the three final issues before cancellation and right after Doug Moench, who gave the title its voice and identity, left. And he had a pretty fun six-issue run on Thor that included traveling around the universe to find Jane Foster, and an adventure with Dracula, but it's probably best known for some issues having Bill Sienkiewicz covers.
Also, it's probably not remembered much because it came right before some dude named Walt Simonson got on the title. You may have heard of his run on Thor. (All things considered though, Zelenetz's run on Thor coincided with Jim Shooter's Thor graphic novel, I Whom the Gods Would Destroy, which is a truly objectively terrible comic book, so Zelenetz should get points just for that.)
Zelenetz's issues were fun, and although I wouldn't really say they were much better than your standard Bronze Age fare, I do think that he showed quite a bit of potential. The most notable thing he did was bring back Jane Foster, marry her off to her longtime love Keith Kincaid, and break up Sif and Thor.
|Art by Ernie Chan|
Zelenetz had a good ear for that kind of mythical story, which was at display most in the five issues he did of Marvel Fanfare with an artist well known for doing folklore, Charles Vess. Their first story was a short one involving the Warriors Three looking for Bragi, Asgard's poet.
Each Warrior has his own adventure and it all leads to the same place. It's got a good balance of whimsy and danger, similar to most fairy tales.
Their next collaboration was a four-parter involving Loki trying to stop a wedding, which is prophesied to signal the end of Asgard if it doesn't push through. (Loki's such an ass.) The script gives way to great visuals and dialogue. It's written in such a way that if I were a publisher and there were a mythological or fantasy comic to be written, Zelenetz would be on the short list, no question.
Here's Fandral getting away from two women he's, um, seduced. Very Errol Flynn-y.
As a side note, these Marvel Fanfare comics were collected in the Thor: The Warriors Three premiere HC with this one-shot by Len Wein and John Buscema (also one of the first comics I ever read, and itself an entertaining story. I think you actually have to try hard to make the Three not entertaining).
Zelenetz and Vess' collaboration continued with the Marvel original graphic novel The Raven Banner: A Tale of Asgard, which takes place a long time ago and features Thor and the Warriors Three only in cameos. It features Greyval Grimson, charged to protect the Raven Banner, which is prophesied to guarantee victory for whomever holds it.
As this very detailed recap points out, Marvel's original graphic novels did not, despite massive opportunities, really put out much in the way of unique quality work. Most were just oversized comics of standard fare and quality, and some were just terrible (see the aforementioned I Whom the Gods Would Destroy), but The Raven Banner was an exception that has not been reprinted, perhaps because it's uncommercial (as mentioned, Thor has only a small cameo). There's no better time to reprint it, with the world being on a Thor/Avengers high. I think it's legitimately well written and is a good read for the mythology buffs.
Zelenetz also worked on the swords-and-barbarians genre for a bit, with runs on Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian. As such, the work of his that may be of the most interest to fans of these genres (fantasy and superhero) is What If...? #39, featuring a crossover between Thor and Conan drawn by Ron Wilson.
In the story, Thor wanders off into Hyboria and loses his memory, which brings him face to face with Conan.
After the customary kerfuffle, Conan leads Thor to Crom, Hyboria's cruel god, which leads to Thor regaining his memories but also leads to him getting on Crom's bad side, which then leads to him dying.
That silent panel's pretty powerful, and a rarity in 1983 comics. It ends with Conan the Barbarian using Mjolnir, and Thor, as inspiration to climb a mountain he was previously unable to climb, ending with another rarity in 1983 comics: an open ending.
There's an open-endedness to the whole thing, and the moment lingers even when you're done with the story. Like Zelenetz's career in comics, it shows promise, potential, and fire. And then it ends, leaving you to wonder just what could have happened next.
Zelenetz went on to become a movie producer, but fortunately, we still have archives of his work. If you see them at a convention, grab 'em up. They'll entertain you, and make you think of what kinds of comics we could have gotten if Alan Zelenetz had decided to hone his craft and stay in comics.