A BIRTHDAY SALUTE to the Marvel mainstay, born 88 years ago, on Jan. 26, 1936…
By CHRIS RYALL
Sometimes working in comics is pretty great. In fact, minus the complicated business end of things, most parts are great — primarily the chance to get to know and befriend creators whose work made me love comics in the first place. And one of the best creators I had the good fortune to get to know and work with is “Our Pal” Sal Buscema, who is celebrating his birthday.
Sal turns 88 and he’s still working, bringing that steady hand and brush to masterfully ink the lines of pencilers like Ron Frenz and Guy Dorian Sr.
For all the years I worked with Sal, I never met him in person until 2021, when he and I and Guy signed together at Comics and Gaming, a Virginia comics shop near Sal’s house. (A video interview with Sal at that event, with color commentary from Guy and me, is available on YouTube).
To help celebrate Sal’s birthday this year, I tried to dig a bit deeper than the usual Sal covers that get spread around (deservedly, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that he’s done so much great work over the course of his long career that I wanted to see if I could spotlight some lesser-posted images. And besides, 13thD overlord Dan Greenfield already did a great job spotlighting 13 of Sal’s Avengers and Defenders covers in a past celebration.
And since I always find it hard to limit myself to 13, I’ll again bookend the official pics with a few additional images before and after the numbered pieces to follow.
Up first, I like this single-page Hulk origin piece that Sal produced in a joint collab between Marvel and Coke (back when they were testing out their Gamma Ray-enhanced version of New Coke).
The one below didn’t quite make the cut of my final 13 but I felt like any image with M.O.D.O.K. getting punched in his enormous cranium deserves some special attention.
And finally, I’ve always loved this self-portrait with Sal at the drawing table, surrounded by the characters he’s most closely associated with, including my favorite childhood character and series, Rom, Spaceknight.
Incidentally, one more bit of stalling before the main event: After roughly 40 years out of print, the first collection of Sal and Bill Mantlo’s Rom, Spaceknight series has finally been officially collected and was in fact released this week. Marvel asked me to write the introductions for all three volumes, which is a thrill to have that association and be a small part of this book. I was so happy to see it arrive that I threw on my Sunday best before sitting down to re-visit those stories.
And with that, it’s time to count off 13 reasons why legions of comics fans have loved Sal Buscema. Happy birthday to My Pal!
In no particular order:
1. Captain America #156. I’m a sucker for any cover where the lead character fights himself (in this case, Captain America, who as has been established could do this all day), and even better when that scene appears amid the wild early 1970s Marvel cover designs.
2. Captain America #168/Power Records #PR12. I ordinarily wouldn’t go back-to-back with the same comic but I particularly love this image, which I first experienced as the cover to one of the debatably classic Power Records “comic and record” sets. If you’ve not read this issue, well, you should, since the Phoenix introduced on the cover went on to become a major part of the Marvel Universe once he started using his real name.
3. Iron Man #34. This cover shouldn’t work—it’s got too many characters for the composition, it features multiple scenes in one image, the largest of which is just a disembodied iron mask, and it’s got multiple word balloons and captions bisecting all of those scenes. By which I mean, it’s perfect.
4. Marvel’s Greatest Comics #36. Of Marvel’s many reprint series in the 1970s, most of them used some form of the original comic’s cover art (often poorly colored compared to the original). But at times, an artist created a new piece, as Sal did here for this reprint of one part of the “Galactus Saga.” I first experienced that complete story in a Marvel Treasury Edition, but this was my first taste, and both this cover and the Stan-and-Jack interiors left me wanting—needing—more.
5. Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #1. For us ’70s Marvel kids, we finally had a Spider-Man series all our own. It was rare to get a first issue for the big characters at that point, so I immediately threw on my spike-tipped boots and leapt at this one.
6. Marvel Team-Up #40. Your first loves resonate the most, good or bad, don’t they? I loved much more the multi-part Scarlet Witch storyline that followed this 2-issue tale, but this cover still wins me over every time I see it. And that great Sons of the Tiger corner box art is just an added bonus.
7. The Human Fly #4. I mean, the Human Fly was the wildest character ever… because he was real, right? (Or so the covers promised.) This one isn’t necessarily the best cover in the series’ short run but it’s always fun to see Sal inked by the great Terry Austin.
8. What If? #12. Sal was my Hulk artist, and so I loved the idea of this issue, with the teenage Rick Jones (a bit closer in age to pre-teen me than stuffy old Bruce Banner) Hulking out.
9. Rom #36. Sal Buscema drew 58 issues and one Annual for the Rom, Spaceknight series, and you know how many covers he drew for the series? This one. I tried to rectify that in a couple series I wrote decades later but I really would’ve loved to see Sal do more on the covers for this series.
10. The Incredible Hulk #277. Sal Buscema drew roughly 2,498 issues of the Incredible Hulk, and you know how many covers he drew for the series? Well… more than one but very few. I love all parts of this one – the spectral Hulk, the Kirby-esque background equipment, the ridiculous but cool outfit on Vector, the metal skirt that Ironclad is wearing, and, really, everything about the silly FF analogs that were the U-Foes.
11. Thor #372. When Walter Simonson moved to just writing Thor, he handed the art to Sal Buscema, who did a great job emulating Walter’s larger-than-life style while still holding onto the things that made Sal Sal. This isn’t a notable issue in the overall run, nor is it a particularly memorable cover, which is what made it so much fun to see it again – even as familiar as I am with so much of Sal’s output, sometimes you see old images with new eyes.
12. The Spectacular Spider-Man #200. I know I set out to just show off lesser-seen Sal covers here but there’s just no way not to give this one its due. The cover is immediately iconic, and the issue is the culmination of this great Green Goblin story that writer J.M. DeMatteis and Sal had been telling for the past year or more. It’s still a massive shame that this run hasn’t been readily available in print since it’s the best this title had ever been.
13. Secret Wars II. Finally, we’ll end the list with a few images from Secret Wars II by Jim Shooter and Sal Buscema… wait, that’s not right. Al Milgrom drew the entire series. But not before Sal penciled nearly a dozen pages of Issue #1 before Shooter replaced him with Al. What could’ve been. Why, if the fates had played things differently, it could’ve been Sal, not Al Milgrom, who got the honor of drawing a scene of Peter Parker teaching the Beyonder how to take a leak in a public restroom.
I didn’t include these as part of the 13 but a few years back, Sal did new covers for a few updated Handbook issues, and all were fun for both the Sal art and for the way the covers emulated covers from each decade.
I once had a chance to create and edit a line of deluxe books at IDW that celebrated fan-favorite artists’ favorite works, and to include a long interview with the artist, too. So in the course of making the book, Sal and I spent plenty of time chatting about his career to that point; and he was nice enough to let me pick my favorite stories, so the book became a kind of “Chris’ Sal Buscema mixtape.” But it did include his two favorite stories he drew, The Incredible Hulk #261 and Hulk Annual #14, both of which I love too.
Finally, after years chasing the Rom rights at IDW, I got close to abandoning the hunt and created my own version of a space-faring cyborg named Onyx. Since Frank Miller drew the cover for Rom #1 rather than Sal, I asked Sal to give me his best Rom #1-like shot for the first issue of Onyx, and he delivered nicely.
Finally, once we did get the Rom rights, Sal did a cover for the first issue (I hated to ask Sal to update the character in any way but so it goes). And then, in my final, 3-issue Rom run, he inked backup strips that I wrote and that Guy Dorian Sr. penciled, so that was a thrill to have Sal work directly on one of my stories.
He inked the covers for that one, too, including the one we used as the trade paperback cover (on this cover, Guy added images of Sal, me, and him in the background, correctly assuming I wasn’t going to ask him to change that.
Once again, Happy Crazy 88 to Sal! Long may he draw.
— 13 COVERS: A SAL BUSCEMA Birthday Celebration. Click here.
— The TOP 13 SAL BUSCEMA HULK Stories — RANKED. Click here.
Chris Ryall is the co-owner/publisher of Image Comics imprint Syzygy Publishing. His latest series is Tales of Syzpense, out now. Subscribe to his Substack of the same name!