For readers of superhero comics — especially DC’s superhero comics — in the 1980s, if you were looking for a fun read, it was a safe bet to pick up anything drawn by the severely underrated Paris Cullins.
Cullins was a regular presence in the pages of DC’s output throughout the decade; he started working on the horror anthologies that often acted as try-outs for new creators, working on titles such as Secrets of Haunted House, House of Mystery, and Weird War Tales alongside such writers as Steve Skeates and J.M. DeMatteis. At the same time, he found himself working on the very opposite end of the spectrum, moonlighting for Harvey Comics on the iconic characters Richie Rich and Hot Stuff.
As unlikely as it may seem, this collision of tones arguably set Cullins in good stead for his breakthrough project, 1984’s Blue Devil. Co-created alongside writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, Blue Devil stood out from its superhero contemporaries from the start. The concept had started as an attempt to create a modern day vehicle for Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko, falling into Cullins’ hands when Ditko passed. Together, Cullins, Cohn, and Mishkin went on to build a title purposefully, gleefully at odds with the comics zeitgeist — as if to emphasize this, early issues were advertised in a house ad with the tagline “We’ve made comics fun again!” — with Cullins’ gloriously bold, cartoonish artwork front and center.
With Blue Devil acting as a welcome spotlight, Cullins was able to show off his talents to their fullest extent. To read the series was to see artwork that appeared to take inspiration from everything from superhero greats like Jack Kirby and John Buscema to Japanese anime and, well, even classic humor comics like the Harvey characters. It was dynamic, kinetic, and — as the ads promised — fun. There was an unmistakable joy running throughout Cullins’ Blue Devil, and one that was infectious not only to the series’ writers, who ramped up already outrageous plots and concepts as the series continued, but to the readers as well.
Cullins didn’t stay on Blue Devil for too long, however, due to what he’s called a “little personal problem” in subsequent interviews. This didn’t keep him out of comics, however; in addition to a Blue Devil annual — officially titled Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, because of course it was — he pencilled covers for DC’s Who’s Who in the DC Universe series of fact files for detail-obsessed fans, giving him the chance to tackle a wide swathe of the company’s characters, before settling into his second big break… which, strangely enough, was also centered around the color blue, and enjoyed a Steve Ditko connection.
Blue Beetle was, according to those responsible for making it, that rare thing — a comic that genuinely was created in response to fan demand. The character, originally created by Ditko for Charlton Comics in 1966, had made a cameo appearance in the best-selling Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, apparently prompting enough requests to see more that an ongoing monthly title was speedily greenlit, with veteran writer and editor Len Wein teaming with Cullins to update the hero for the mid-80s.
Again, what Cullins did with the title was bring a feeling of excitement and joy. Under his pen, Blue Beetle became one of DC’s most exciting books at the time, with the artwork bringing a new energy to Wein’s writing, which mixed Iron Man and Spider-Man tropes to become something that read unexpectedly, and surprisingly appealingly, like a never-published Marvel title from the early ‘70s. Cullins had, once again, made comics fun again.
Blue Beetle lasted just two years, but Cullins jumped ship six months before the end for the opportunity of his career — reviving a title created by the artist he revered above all others. The six issue Forever People was clearly a passion project for all involved, with writer J.M. DeMatteis bringing every ounce of his inner Lawrence Kasdan to a project that revisited comics’ ultimate flower children in the late 1980s. Despite the project’s tendency to occasionally dip too deeply into a particularly talkative therapy session, the six-issue series nonetheless gave Cullins the opportunity to indulge his inner Jack Kirby to the full, ably inked by inker Karl Kesel, bringing a crispness and edge to Cullins’ pencils that they’d never previously enjoyed. The result was something that felt appropriately big, and fittingly emotional, doing more justice to Kirby’s creations visually than they’d seen since he himself had left the company.
As it turned out, people were paying attention — including DC editors, who assigned Cullins to an ongoing title reviving New Gods for the first time since the 1970s. Working with writers Jim Starlin and Mark Evanier, Cullins wouldn’t just provide eye-catching, over-the-top art to the new New Gods, he’d also go on to help plot many of the 17 issues he’d illustrate before leaving the series.
Cullins would remain in comics after leaving New Gods, although his appearances would sadly become more sporadic; he’d contribute to The New Titans and Hawk & Dove for DC, as well as issues of Hyperkind, X-Factor Annual, and Cage for Marvel. He even appeared in an issue of Penthouse Comix, as well as a handful of Valiant’s Magnus, Robot Fighter revival. Outside of comics, he went on to work in toy design and video game packaging, as well as trading cards. Each time his art showed up, it was a bittersweet moment; while he remained particularly talented and skilled at what he does, it was a reminder of what mainstream comics had lost when he disappeared from their pages on a regular basis.
At his best, Paris Cullins was a reminder of just how overblown, fast-moving and warm superhero comic book art could be. It’s a word overused in this piece, I know, but he really did have the ability to make comics seem just that little bit more… well, fun.