John Ostrander: Telling The Story
We distinguish “pop culture” from “High Culture” usually because the main objective of “pop culture” is to entertain while “High Culture” looks into the human condition. It can entertain and should. Tragedy should entertain but in ways that are different from, say, Guardians of the Galaxy. But that is not its primary purpose.
That said, pop culture can also look into the human condition, into the world around us, and “hold a mirror up to nature.” That line is from Shakespeare who is very High Culture now but in his day was disparaged by some as being “too popular.” He appealed to the groundlings – those in the cheap seats – and that is part of the reason, I believe, that he is still so playable today. He knew that to reach someone’s mind and heart you first had to get their attention. The best way was to tell them a story.
That was a lesson that was also taught to me by our own Denny O’Neil. He has been a large-scale influence in my life. I was a fan when he wrote some seminal stories in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow book. The Green Lantern series had low numbers at that point and he was given an opportunity to write it; I once read that he liked the assignment because it was no fail. If he saved the book, that was great. If it got cancelled anyway, management would assume that the book was in a downward spiral and couldn’t be saved. In a way, he couldn’t lose. So he added Green Arrow, got Neal Adams as artist, and took a new path.
That has also influenced my career path; I liked taking on the B list characters. You could play with them, change them, without too much objections by the Higher Ups. You could take chances you might not be able to do with flagship titles. Don’t get me wrong; I would have loved to get a crack at a regular Superman or Batman gig (I did write some stories with the characters but never a regular book) but I found The Spectre to be wide open and Tom Mandrake and I crafted over 60 issues of which I am proud. It’s been one of the highlights of my career.
While ultimately Green Lantern/Green Arrow did get cancelled, Denny set a standard. He taught me that you could write about important subjects, about the issues surrounding that time, and create something that entertained as well as make you think. He addressed racism, drugs, even the environment (among other topics); that wasn’t being done at the time. He showed me what the potential of the medium could be.
He’s never forgotten, however, that the purpose of Pop Culture is to entertain. We were working on a project together with me as writer and he as editor. The purpose of the project was very definitely to make a comment on the subject of guns and gun violence. His direction was very clear. He told me that, in comics, “You can say anything you want but first you have to tell a story.” This wasn’t a pulpit and preaching isn’t narrative. Our first job was to tell a good story. That’s what the reader was paying to get. That was the job. It still is.