By Kenneth Laster
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
I never knew much about Blue Devil, and I knew even less about Paris Cullins prior to this piece. I knew vaguely that Blue Devil existed, from his sidekick being on a Teen Titans run I read as a kid – but other than that I kinda only knew him as a C-List character with an unknown audience to me. While the research into Blue Devil #1 definitely introduced me to the gist of the character (an actor/stuntman trapped in a demon costume yadda yadda) the real breakout character of this deep dive was Paris Cullins. The self described “Ricardo Montalbán” of comic books (based on his willingness to do everything), Cullins would go on to do style guides, work for Nintendo, to adult magazines, and in the very recent past a comic called Bodacious Bovine about a farmer who falls in love with a… um… sexy cow.
We’ll get there! But first, some context on Cullins and Blue Devil. Paris Cullins was born in North Philadelphia around 1960-ish to parents who were both involved in the arts. His father was a jazz musician and loved to paint alongside his mother who encouraged comic books as art from an early age. Paris also began working from an early age from that willingness to try anything and ended up working for a coloring book company at the ripe old age of 11! In the time before he got to DC he worked for Laramie toys, holiday cards, and ad work as a kid, just by just trying whatever opportunities came his way. In that same vein of putting himself out there, he submitted his portfolio around three times to DC comics by 1979, before finally calling them up to ask about his samples. Surprisingly Dick Giodarno flat out stated that they had been looking for him but misplaced his samples.
They specifically came up with their intern program just because of Paris’ talent and their hope of giving him that little bit of “DC training”.
Cullin’s first work was in I, Vampire, Weird War Tales, and most importantly for the history of Blue Devil #1; House of Mystery. While Paris was getting himself settled in, Gary Cohn and Dan Mishkin set the task of giving the legendary co-creator of Spider-Man, Steve Ditko, something to keep busy with. So the two set out to create something so catered to Ditko he couldn’t resist. The character was going to be bouncy, tragic, and wrapped a number of 1960s Marvel tropes into a character – and in a riff on the Green Goblin named him Blue Devil.
Cohn wrote up a synopsis and Ditko said… ”Not my kind of thing.”
In came the then-19 year old Paris Cullins, who had worked with Cohn previously, to be the next best solution. The team planned for the story to be a 15-or-so page back up in House of Mystery (but quickly grew) and Paris began working up sketches for the character… but according to the creators the designs kept coming back too “grim”. Cullins couldn’t get past a guy stuck in a costume being happy-go-lucky until he called up editor Len Wein and said “He’s stuck in that costume? Does it really work all the way around?” to which Len responds “Oh yeah, it’s got all the parts.” to which Paris reacts “Oh! He’s happy!”.
After that clarification, Paris essentially returned back to Gary Cohn’s rough sketch for the character and went to work on that original back up story – which had now grown to 21 pages, taking up an entire House of Mystery issue… until Cullins recalled his ex-wife ripping the story up, throwing it in the toilet, and squirting ketchup all over it in anger.
But not all was lost! DC told the team to do it over – but this time round, to make it a pitch document for a series. The team of Cohn, Mishkin and Cullins put together a pitch of a synopsis, sketches, and an outline for 12 issues of Blue Devil. And not only was the pitch picked up, their proposal was held up as the gold standard for what a proposal should be according to editor Dick Giordano. The team were off to the races and employed the Marvel method for the storytelling on Blue Devil, with Cullins at Cohn’s apartment, bouncing ideas and dialogue off of each other and evoking a true sense of collaboration in creating this relatively obscure little superhero. Lo and behold, Blue Devil was born.
When researching the off panel origins of Blue Devil, the most common words around the character were “kinetic” and “bouncy”, and it’s very evident in the action of Blue Devil #1. The plotting is pretty standard Bronze Age while remaining compelling: the broad strokes are that Dan Cassidy is a stuntman/special effects artist/inventor filming “The Blue Devil” in his state of the art super suit, alongside a crew of supporting characters including the leading lady love interest; the cowardly leading man romantic rival; and the hard-ass director who looks like Rogue from the X-Men. Standard stuff. Over the course of filming the leads sneak off to an ancient temple and unleash a real life devil. Dan and his special suit fights off the threat, only to get sealed in his suit as a last page cliffhanger.
Overall the plot of this is relatively tight and really comes off as a pilot for the series, in terms of setting up the cast of characters and leaving off with a hook. It certainly reads as something that was meant to be a standalone story with much of the stakes being self contained within the issue without a number of threads left dangling for the rest of the series. There are some also great swerves in terms of presentation, mainly with the beginning of the issue being a scene from the movie played straight, which genuinely made me wonder if I was reading the right comic! The characters themselves aren’t exactly robust, but they have as much depth as expected for a standard c-list bronze age tale. They react to the stakes as per the melodrama of the day, with one particular standout being the director – who in addition to looking like Rogue, is sort of a riff on J. Jonah Jameson and a single mom, which is a really fresh take on the hard-as-nails character type.
Cullins art is a very interesting artefact, as this was his first full length comic issue. His style leans more into the realm of cartoon-like – in the vein of a Todd Nauck or a Bret Blevins – but the rest still leans into a familiar house style at the time. There’s a strong connection between the big doe eyes of Cullins here and the full cartoon style of, um… Bodacious Bovine. Cullins’ monster design is also incredible, with the demon of the book being genuinely ugly and other-worldly, straddling the line between b-movie monster and and a real threat. The famous “kinetic” energy is there in abundance with dynamic action scenes throughout and it’s extremely well done for the most part for an artist so young. However there are a number of instances where the age comes across: where a page is a bit too cluttered or there are sacrifices made to the clarity of the story- such as the appearance of the dreaded red arrow, telling me which order to read the panels in.
Overall, though, it’s easy to see why Cullins would be the wünderkind who prompted DC to start an internship program. That natural talent is on display but he’s not without room for improvement.
Cullins stayed on for about six issues and an annual (on his sixth and final issue he was joined by another Black comics legend: Denys Cowan!) and the series concluded after 31 issues, with Cullins providing covers throughout. While Cullins’ time with the series was short-lived, his career at DC, comics, and as a commercial artist was far from over. Around the same time he was penciling Blue Devil, Cullins also worked for Atari, took over Who’s Who in the DCU entries from George Perez, and did cartoon and toy designs for Mattel. He was also tackling cover layouts, stating, “even if my name wasn’t on the cover, that didn’t mean I didn’t design it.” Some of his other big accomplishments included launching the DC era of the character of Blue Beetle, and a foray into writing and drawing reviving the Kirby classic The Forever People, before collaborating with Mark Evanier on The Fourth World. He had quickly earned his title of the “Ricardo Montalbán” of comic books… to the point I’d have to write a whole other article to fit all of the design work he did at the Big Two and beyond.
Cullins’ try-anything approach really shifts in an interesting direction by the time of the new millennium, with a chance job working for Penthouse Comix coming from George Carragone, where he became a decently integrated part of the publication in the mid 1990s. The Wikipedia page for Penthouse Comix is a doozy and ends in traged,y but Cullins took the lesson from his time there of “do it yourself” which led to him becoming a publisher for his own Black focused adult magazine called around 2009 called Gritz n’ Gravy, “a quarterly illustrated adult urban fantasy and popular-culture national magazine.” It’s hard to gauge how long this venture went but considering all of the sources I can find being on some variation of the Wayback Machine, I can’t assume it was a smash hit.
The presumed failure of Gritz n’ Gravy doesn’t seem like it put a huge dip in his stride as he is pretty regular in terms of convention appearances but there’s a sense for a need for success with a relatively recent project… New Devil. New Devil is a collaboration between Cullins and Gary Cohn to create a new character based on their dissatisfaction in the direction of Blue Devil at DC, hence New Devil. Despite the similarity in name, the book is sold as more of a spiritual successor. The more… interesting recent project is Bodacious Bovine. What’s there to say that hasn’t been said? It’s allegedly PG-13; Cullins’ collaboration with Richmond based farmer, Mike Dowell is a lighthearted comic strip about a farmer and cow who like each other too much. There’s also a Cow mafia and a thing called… the “#MooToo movement”.
So far there are only 16 pages on the “Udderly Ridiculous Productions” webpage, and I haven’t read them because I am waiting for Steve to ask me back when this column gets to 2019 to cover it.
Looking at Paris Cullins’ career from the lens of Blackness is interesting. On the surface he is very much a “Weird Black” Elder, with his afro fauxhawk and joyous vibes. When reflecting on what he would put in a comics time capsule he reflected on his experience making an influential Black comic:
I also knew that making black comics, back then, they barely got anywhere. What I didn’t know, was that it was probably because they were not turning in a comic on a consistent level. It just needs to be in someone’s face constantly. It was when Brother Man by Guy A. Sims came out that things changed. He broke the rules, came out consistently and it became a hit that no one could stop from happening. It wasn’t being picked up like it was supposed to. A lot of things weren’t happening and yet they succeeded. I knew then that the only thing stopping me was me.
That quote really speaks to Cullins absolute drive to just keep going and trying new things, chasing that idea that anything is possible with consistency. He refuses to hold himself back from any opportunity which leads to his extremely varied career. He even pursues bringing Blackness into the text his work in fascinating ways with Grits N’ Gravy being particularly Black focused and he discusses an idea for a comic called Afro-Punks blending the hippie counterculture movement and the titular Afro punk concept. He describes it as a new concept for him to explore and he doesn’t know much about it as a cultural reference point but he does want to gear it towards women and have it be something his daughter, or wife would enjoy.
Up to this day Paris Cullins has stuck to his guns of trying each-and-everything and not holding himself back. Cullins expands on his Montalbán claim by saying,
“Ricardo Montalbán did everything. Sometimes he did a cowboy movie and he didn’t claim. He didn’t worry about being the head. He didn’t worry about being the main character. He just got on, put on a Native American outfit or put on a cowboys outfit, rode in and rode out.”
This quote really rings true for Cullins’ career in many ways. He takes everything and he takes it with stride. The same workmanship he showed as an 11 year old with an art career, he showed with Blue Devil and yes… even Bodacious Bovines. He really is the Ricardo Montalbán of comics.
Blue Devil #1
Written by Gary Cohn & Dan Mishkin
Pencilled by Paris Cullins
Inked by Pablo Marcos
Coloured by Tom Ziuko
Lettered by Todd Klein
Published in 1984
Kenneth Laster is a cartoonist and critic who has written for sites including Multiversity, ComicsXF, and Comic Book Herald. You can find Ken’s comics available (for free!) here, and follow Ken on Twitter here!