DENNIS O’NEIL: On Arnold Drake
For a lot of years I didn’t know much about Arnold Drake beyond some minimal biography: he was a first-generation comic book writer, he had written a movie or two. Then, last summer, we were thrown together for a public conversation at a small convention and for an hour I found Arnold to be charming, witty, a good raconteur, a treasury of information about the history of our medium, and way younger than his years. When we parted, Arnold gave me his card and we made vague noises about getting together in Manhattan, some time or other. We never did, and last week an email from Danny Fingeroth informed me that Arnold had died.
When I think about guys like Arnold, I’m reminded of the final scene of Herman Wouk’s play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. You may remember it: Defense lawyer Barney Greenwald, having just cleared his Navy officer client of a charge of mutiny and, in the process, humiliated a career Navy man named Captain Queeg, arrives at the victory party and, bitterly, eloquently, regrets what he has done. Queeg and his ilk, Greenwald says, kept the Navy going during the years between wars, when there was no opportunity for glory, maintained the infrastructure so there was something to build on when the country was threatened.
So, I think, it was with Arnold Drake, Bill Finger, John Broome, Gardner Fox, and a handful of others – even including Stan Lee. They kept the medium going during those long, lean years when there was very little money to be made and absolutely no renown to be had. On the contrary: as late as 1965, when I began writing for comics, the form was, in the opinion of many, pretty disreputable. It wasn’t until the late 70s, maybe not coincidentally with the release of the first megabudget Superman movie, that comics began to be generally recognized as a valid storytelling vehicle and even – dare we whisper it? – an art form. Without Arnold and Company… who knows? Could all that has happened to comics since – the other, bigger movies, the university courses, the television shows, the steaming gobs of respectability… could any of that have happened?
I don’t know why these guys stayed in comics, maybe nobody does, nor do I think it matters. What’s crucial is that they did, and we have all benefited from their efforts.
I haven’t mentioned the quality of the work that Arnold did, the characters he created, his songwriting brothers’ achievements, or anything else about his family. I’ll let better-qualified commentators do all that. I’ll just publicly regret not spending more time learning from him and suggest that, if you’re ever browsing through used comics bins you might want to look for his byline.
RECOMMENDED READING: Don’t Know Much About The Universe, by Kenneth C. Davis. If you’re one of us guys who snoozed through science classes, or managed not to take any at all, you need this informative and reader-friendly book. It may surprise you and it may even make you regret your little naps.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man and Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, all kinds of novels (such as his most recent, Helltown), stories and articles.