Primary Sources, by Dennis O’Neil
In days of yore – my yore anyway – I briefly wondered if my particular literary backwater, the writing of comic books, would be properly remembered. It seemed to me that young snots such as myself were getting attention – interviews and the like – and the guys who were around at the beginning, the guys who virtually created the form, were pretty much ignored, although many of them were still alive and frisky.
I needn’t have worried and I didn’t, which is good because, even more than most worry, this variety would have been a waste of time.
I do wish there had been more interviews with…oh, to cite the first name that pops into the shopworn old psyche, Bill Everett. And I don’t remember ever reading a Q and A with Carl Burgos: if none exists, too bad. Even Bill Finger doesn’t seem to have left many historical footprints, and some of what we know about him comes from people like me, whose memories are emphatically not to be trusted.
Having said all that: comics are undoubtedly the most documented medium/art form in history. They came to their early maturity just in time to benefit from the explosion of media and distribution, and the belated realization that every art form was pop culture once, and none are prima facie inferior. And guys like Gerry Jones know how to use the information sources available and have the patience and literary skill to put the pieces together.
So we’ve got the data, or enough of it, anyway, certainly more than exists for any art form that flourished before the last century. (Wouldn’t it be nice to have to have a recorded conversation with…say, the little kid who brought Homer shellsful of water during those long, hot recitation gigs? Anyway…) Now, it would be nice if someone way smarter than me started drawing conclusions from he info. I suspect that if we understand the creative elements that go into comics we’ll understand creative elements, period. Remember what we mentioned a few columns back, the biogenetic law formulated by Ernst Haeckel about a century ago: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – each embryo in its development passes through abbreviated stages that resemble its ancestors’ evolutionary stages.
What I’m guessing is something similar happens in a lot of areas, including the artistic. Understand the acorn and you understand the oak. And we might begin to answer questions like: How, if at all, do stories influence behavior/ Ethics? Philosophy? Elections? Psychologists tell us that stories are what infants use to begin making sense of the world. Okay, how does that process change as the infant progresses to adulthood? Are the objectivists right in believing that righteous fiction must reflect an ethos? What is the exact relationship of fiction to religion? Et cetera.
We really don’t have a lot of data about Dickens’ work methods, influences, et. al. But Will Eisner talked to a lot of people and some recorded what he said.
Maybe we should turn a fresh gaze on our own little treasure trove.
RECOMMENDED READING: On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and The Shadow – among many others – as well as many novels, stories and articles. The Question: Zen and Violence, reprinting the first six issues of his classic series with artist Denys Cowan, is on sale right now, the second volume, Poisoned Ground, will be on sale April 30, and his novelization of The Dark Knight will be available this summer, and you can pre-order them now.