So riddle me this: how do we react to another massacre? And yet, given the events of last week in Oregon, what else is worth reacting to?
I guess I’m with Obama and Colbert. The president said we’ve become numb and that’s not a bad observation. Stephen Colbert said that we’ve gotten good at pretending. Something horrific happens, something that could have been prevented, and the clergy and politicians and pundits make their noise and in a news cycle or two, we’re pretending it never happened.
Common sense suggests strategies that deserve exploration. (Gun registration could be administered as driver’s licenses are administered.) Lies get told. (The prez is sending minions in black choppers to take away your guns. The Dems are drafting laws to make firearm ownership illegal. There aren’t enough guns because one for every man, woman and child in the country isn’t enough.) Facts are ignored. (Other first world nations don’t suffer from our epidemic of gun violence.)
Research has shown that most people don’t change their minds even after they admit that the facts are against them. So appealing to sweet reason, it seems, is futile.
In my uncertain early middle years, I occasionally said that it was impossible to know the history of comics without knowing the history of Twentieth Century America. This might have been simply a comment or it might have been an attempt to lend comics some cachet of respectability.
If I meant it as a comment, ‘t’were better delivered while leaning against a mantelpiece, clad in tweeds, eyes gazing into an empty distance, and I don’t think I was encountering either tweeds or mantels in those days. Not too many empty distances, either.
If I meant it to give comics respectability, well,,. hell! Who said that they needed any frickin’ respectability? Okay, yes, some still believed comics to be pernicious and associating some respectability with comics might have had an effect on them, though I kind of doubt it. Do such righteous folk ever change their minds?
Now, abra change-of-subject cadabra.
Seen any popes lately? Pope Frances, who joins my tiny list of religious leaders whom I consider to be the real deal, has been all over the television these past few days. And I didn’t mind a bit. I didn’t watch a lot of the coverage, but it was refreshing to be buried in the papacy instead of Donald Trump.
The happiest day for me was Thursday, when Francis gave Congress some truth and in the process mentioned only two American Catholics: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, both of whom were profiled on cable news a couple of times later that night. Merton was a Trappist monk who wrote and traveled and urged a uniting of East and West spirituality. Oh, and he made trouble.
Dorothy? Well, you’re not gonna believe this, but…a few hours before Pope Francis addressed the politicians I was speaking to Dorothy’s godson, one of my oldest friends. He’d found some stuff she’d written that he thought I might want to know about, and he was right. A mild coincidence here, because I’d recently learned that Leslie Tompkins, a Batman comics character repurposed for television, was returning to the Gotham show, again portrayed by the truly lovely Morena Baccarin.
Leslie, as I may have mentioned in an earlier column, was inspired by Dorothy. I’ve got to careful not to say that Leslie was modeled on Dorothy because there are differences. But they’re kindred souls who both made choices that wouldn’t occur to most of us and improved the lot of their fellow humans. Sad that only one of them really ever existed.
So I will suggest, but not very loudly, that the aforementioned coincidence is a link between Pope Francis and comics. Would this convince comics nay-sayers that comics aren’t evil, this respectability-by-association? Doubtful.
Did I mention that Dorothy Day was a trouble maker? I don’t know about Leslie. She didn’t really make much trouble in the stories I wrote but she’s still around, in both comics and on the tube, and she has plenty of time to ruffle authoritarian feathers. I wish she would. Pope Francis might agree.
Time was when I was young and had not yet outgrown the need for hair that in the dead of winter, a lady friend and I rambled west and found ourselves in the San Francisco area. We crossed that big bridge and called on my Aunt Ethel, whom I had seen maybe once in my life when I was a little kid and who had no idea that we were coming. Knock knock, I’m your great nephew from Missouri you wouldn’t be able to pick from a lineup and this is my friend Anne and by the way, we have no place to stay and almost no money…
She was a nice lady, Ethel was, and she gave us room and board for a few days until we were ready to rehit the road. She was also a radical whose recently departed husband had been a pioneer union organizer in an era when, according to one story, union members went to meetings in groups armed with rifles. Anne and I were lefties in our early 20s and we were not big fans of unions. My father had gotten unwelcome attention from the Teamsters and in general we believed that unions were corrupt havens for the thug class.
Ethel, on the other hand, was one with Woody Guthrie and the other populists and believed the union movement to be a shining hope for the exploited and mistreated working man. So we disagreed, but we did it politely, and we were in a friendly mood when we left Ethel’s house in Corte Madera. I don’t know how or when Ethel died and I’m sorry about that. I should have stayed in touch.
Then I went to live in New York and pretty much forgot about organized labor until I became a member of the Academy of Comic Book Arts. ACBA’s mission was never very clear to me, but in broad, blurry strokes it was intended to be the voice of all us scruffy comics freelancers. What ACBA really did accomplish was to hold an annual awards banquet and hand out certificates (and later statuettes) to people who had done exemplary work before there were Eisners and/or Harveys. But there were no negotiations with management and when ACBA sort of faded away in 1977, the day to workaday situation of the comics creators hadn’t changed.
It’s gotten way better. We’re now guaranteed royalties, back end money, foreign use payments, various ancillary payments when other media get involved. We sign contracts and the bucks arrive and I’m okay with that. I hate bookkeeping – tax time is a trip to an unexplored corner of hell – and I’m willing to trust the folks out in Burbank.
But pensions? Medical benefits? Vacation pay? Maternity pay or its equivalent? Those are still not available to many of the gallant mavericks who slap ink onto paper and provide you with entertainment. Are we advocating unions? Shrug.
It may be that unions are remnants of a past century and there are other kinds of negotiating bodies possible to us now. Or it may be that the need for unionization is evolving into something else. But one service unions can still provide is fundraising. They can allow politicians unbeholden to billionaires to accumulate enough capital to mount a decent campaign. And at the moment, there are very few organizations able to do that.
And, you know, fossil that I am, I kind of like the two party system.
There’s probably a lot going on just up the road, at the Temple Beth Torah. This is the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and, apart from whatever community and religious value it has, it’s a pretty big personal marker for me. Just 50 years ago, on this holiday, I arrived in Manhattan after three days on the road to begin what would prove to be a new life – and, my friend, I’m talking a seriously new life.
In those 72 hours, give or take, I went from being a small town reporter, and something of a local pariah, and a bachelor, and a Missourian, to being a comic book writer in New York City who hung around with peaceniks with an eighty dollar a month apartment in what was then a slum. Pretty soon, I added husband and father to the list, and then freelancer and then a dude with “detox” on his resume and then…
What a long, strange journey it has been.
The business I stumbled into, on a sunny September day, has changed, which may be what the universe intended it to do. It’s still recognizable – the callow me whom Roy Thomas introduced to Stan Lee that sunny day would recognize today’s comics as comics – but there has been gigantic evolution. The product – those comic books – is slicker and skinnier and costs a lot more and the fiction they purvey is far more sophisticated, both in subject matter and structure. And – believe this! – it has become respectable. No fooling.
Comics were still in the spiky shadow of the witch hunts of the 50s when a lot of folk thought they were, you know, evil or something. Ah, but now. we get invited to speak at big universities – heck, some of us teach at those institutions. We shake hands with celebs and politicos. Our work is covered by the other media (Today: two items in Yahoo’s news column about what kind of costume actress Chloe Bennet will wear on a television show derived from comics stories Stan and Jack Kirby did when I was a newbie.
Which brings us to the television programs and the movies. Four weekly shows featuring comic book superheroes (and I may be forgetting one or two) coming to a screen in your living room within the next few weeks. And movies? Oh, shucks – if you’re bothering to read this you know about the honkin’ big movies. Most of them do damn well at the box office and some do damn well in the billion-dollar arena and that profit margin may be a reason we comics geeks have attained the aforementioned respectability. Anything that’s reaping those bucks has to be good, right?
Back then, 50 Septembers ago, I could not imagine that one day I would be doing copy for a computer-sourced venue and if I thought of computers at all, I probably called them something like “electronic brains.” And, what’s more, I’m using one of those electronic brains to produce the copy. But here I am.
Wondering, a little, what to do next. I’ve been electronically braining this column for a few years and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to do something new with it. Or maybe not. I might just decide that it ain’t broke and don’t need no fixing.
Outside my window summer is melting away and when it’s finally gone, what will be uncovered? Well, cold weather for one thing – I think we’re on pretty firm ground there – and if the weather pundits are right, it’ll be damn cold weather. Which will make it a match for that melting summer, a brute of a season with the hottest July ever recorded.
Is something going on?
So here’s what might happen: I might go to the park and meet a guy who’ll tell me that the sky is pink with big yellow polka dots and I’ll say no, the sky is blue. And he’ll say that he’s no scientist, but the third cousin of a fella he knows says that the sky is pink with yellow polka dots and that, by golly, is plenty good enough for him.
Let us forge ahead.
The end of summer brings the new television season. The big news is The Return of Colbert, less than two days in my future and already in your past. So you may know if Colbert’s debut at 11:35 has satisfied all the expectations and justified all the publicity. (If you don’t know, you probably don’t care and that’s okay.) I watched his previous show on Comedy Central whenever I wasn’t traveling and I’m rooting for him. He’s one of one of our valuable jesters, one just a handful of entertainers who speak the truth to power.
The week’s other big TV news is big news to me, but may not be big news to you. On Thursday (the day you’re reading this blather?) Longmire returns. The weekly show was cancelled after three seasons but good ol’ Netflix has rescued it and we get to enjoy more of Walt Longmire’s travails. This is the one best cop shows ever, though if we’re being picky I guess we should call it a “sheriff show.” Mari and just finished watching all the previous episodes and are eager for more.
What am I forgetting?
Oh yeah: Superheroes! They’ll be well-represented, with all last year’s crop not only returning, but being augmented by new actors playing superdoers. Watching these programs has become one of those unacknowledged rituals that help form a marriage and, that aside, we generally like them.
The newcomer is Supergirl, who first appeared in the comics in 1959 as Superman’s cousin, another survivor of the Krypton community. (Where do they find a stadium big enough for their reunions?)
Judging from the infinitesimally tiny bit I know about the show, the title character will be played as a wholesome, girl-next-door, kind of like what she was (is?) on the printed page. Okay, no problem. We’ve seen plenty of the superhero-as-tormented-vigilante. Now let’s see what you television guys can do with wholesome.
Imagine the nipper that was me 70 years ago, give or take, I’m just back from one of my irregular expeditions up and down Claxton Avenue, stopping at certain houses and trading comic books with the kids who lived in them.
(I no longer have any idea who these kids were – though Dard Schmidt may have been one of them – but I hereby tender to them much belated thanks.)
Anyway, I’m looking through the newly acquired comics and … what’s this?
A comic book about a guy dressed like a clown who calls himself Funnyman and fights criminals. Not exactly like Batman and Superman fight them, but I guess fighting criminals is fighting criminals and anyone who does that is a good guy and so let’s just open the cover and see what this Funnyman is doing these days,
I must have liked what I saw – after all, I did remember the character longer than your daddy’s been alive, despite having only one encounter with him (I think.)
I mentioned Superman, didn’t I? Well, back then, in post-war St. Louis, I doubt that I really understood what bylines were. Reading itself was a recently acquired skill. Fact is, I don’t know if Funnymanhad bylines, but if it did, they would have featured the names Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Ringing any bells? Yep, that Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman. It seems that Jerry and Joe were in a legal hassle with their former employer, the publisher of Superman, and decided to try something new, something without a big red S on its chest.
Enter Vin Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan, who seems to be one of comics’ forgotten men, had worked with Jerry and Joe on the early Superman and had started his own publishing company, Magazine Enterprises. Mr. Sullivan gave Jerry and Joe’s latest creation his own comic and Funnyman was heading for glory. But not for long. The title lasted only six issues. Siegel and Shuster also tried Funnyman as a newspaper strip, and that did not fare well, either.
But might the character be revivable? Maybe hype up his alter ego, a comedian named Larry Davis, and borrow some tropes from the trickster myths and … Oh wait! I’ve got it! We’ll have him run for governor – no, not governor, let’s go big time…we’ll have him campaign for the presidency (of the United States) and he says that he will eliminate most of the country’s problems during his first week in office by firing all the stupid people. Then comes the mightiest plank in his platform: He will deal with crime by building this great big wall … did I say “great big?” I meant huge – HUGE! A trillion feet high! And really, really long. And then, he’ll put all of the bad criminals on one side of the huge wall and never, ever let them back into the country even if they ask very politely.
One more thing: let’s give Larry Davis his own television show. What do you think – Sunday nights on NBC?
Hold tight – white-knuckles tight, and… up up up upupupupup and… wheeeeeeeeeee! Down we go, and. Slowing, slowing, stopping. Step out now. A bit wobbly, maybe? Excited? Exhilarated? Hey, let’s go get some cotton candy and maybe later we’ll ride the roller coaster again, after we’ve recovered a little. Say, what was the name of that roller coaster, anyway? Well, I’ll be gosh-derned… It’s the Batman roller coaster!
Ah, summertime. And part of the joy of the warm season is a trip or two to the amusement park, and part of the amusement park adventure is riding the roller coaster. When I was a nipper, those coasters were beyond the admission gates of the Forest Park Highlands (though I never thought they were any higher than the city that surrounded them) or Chain of Rocks (which, oddly, was higher than the geography in which it was fixed, but I never saw any rows of rocks thereabouts. Life can be puzzling, especially if you’re a nipper.) I probably rode the coasters in those parks, unless my parents thought I was too young for them, which might have been the case. But Batman? No, never. Roller coasters were in parks and Batman was in comic books and – mark this in your diary – the twain did not meet.
Now, some 65 or so years later, when the world has changed, the conflation of Batman and coaster still seems a trifle peculiar. Coasters are about summer fun, juvenile hi-jinks, laughter and merriment. And Batman? A child watching his mother and father shot, fall to the cold pavement, die. A horror.
What twisted karma could pair childhood delight and childhood terror? You say you’re a Batman fan? Which Batman do you like, the one who lands his name to amusements or the stricken orphan?
While we’re in an inquisitive mood… Are you a Yankees fan? What exactly are you a fan of? The lineup this year isn’t what it was last year nor what it will be next year, and pretty much the same goes for the coaches and business guys and ticket takers.
You’re a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation? Okay, Buddhism holds that nothing is permanent, so what gets reincarnated?
You could ask similar questions about any professional sports team, and a number of superheroes, and maybe another religion or two. And if you did, you might consider finding a nice hobby, or getting out of the house. You might need a little… I don’t really know what you need, any more than I know the answers to the questions I asked a couple-three paragraphs ago. Maybe a little recreation – is that what you need? Hey, know what? I’ll bet there’s an amusement park in your area somewhere.
If, as T.S. Eliot would have us believe, April is the cruelest month, what’s the other month that beings with A? Is August the ecch-est month? Here in our little baliwick – and yeah, I’m talking pop culture – there’s not a lot happening. The Baltimore comic convention isn’t until late September, and I can’t help wondering what effect, if any, the violence earlier this year will have on the show. None, I hope. I’ve always liked Baltimore.
Note: this does not mean that I wish civic unrest on towns I don’t like. Or any towns, period. It’s a cause for some uneasy notice in our house, this violence, because Marifran grew up in Ferguson when it was just another St. Louis bedroom community. This is the town, a bit west of St. Louis, where I picked up cute little Marifran McFarland for the Friday night movie ritual and returned her to her waiting father at midnight or thereabouts. Good Catholic kids – you weren’t going to catch us staying out till the wee hours. (Well, not then, and not in each other’s company.) So Marifran lived in Ferguson and it was, generally, a peaceful haven for middle class families.
Now? There was, one year ago, the shooting of an unarmed black kid by a white officer that precipitated riots and then, after an interval of apparent quiet, more unrest. The Ferguson news in the morning papers is not good.
But we were discussing ecchy August as it pertains to pop culture, weren’t we? What else…? Movies? We’ve been dilatory theater goers of late, and I don’t exactly know why. It’s not like August – or July or June before it – has been egregiously busy. Fact is, thing’s have been kind of lazy. If its true that to get something done you should give it to a busy person, stay away from our door.
Not that we’ve been entirely remiss is our moviegoing. We did see Mr. Holmes, the story of the world’s greatest detective when he’s old and failing, and it was terrific. But the splashier entertainments, full of grandiose feats and explosions – you know: superheroes… those we’ve missed, at lest so far. We’ll probably catch Ant Man tomorrow. But chances are that The Fantastic 4 will have to find room on our television screen when it gets that far.
Bombed, didn’t it? Box office worse than The Green Hornet, which is nobody’s idea of filmic greatness. Reed and Sue and Ben and Johnny seem to be cinematically cursed. The two FF movies released in 2005 qnd 2007 did no better than okay and the FF movie before those never got to theaters. I have seen it and barely remember anything about it other than a general badness, One rumor, which I tend to believe, says that it was never intended for audiences, that it was hastily slammed together to satisfy a legal requirement. But what excuse can there be for later failures?
Back from a mission, the particulars of which I am not at liberty to divulge though I can reveal that it involved a food store, and… Look! Someone has deposited a package on the front stoop. A friend? An enemy? One of those uniformed people who drive around the neighborhood in trucks? Make haste! Slit the tape, fold back the flaps, and…
It must have been a no-brainer, all those years ago. Superman was a success. Ditto Batman. The rest of Detective / All-American Comics’ cadre of costumed do-gooders were doing at least okay, if not better, and if those mysterious beings out there beyond the office walls – call them “readers” – like superdoers in single doses then they’ll go nuts for a bunch of such heroes in the same magazine and – here comes the challenge for the editorial department – all of them working on the same problem.
The added benefit, as Roy Thomas observes in his informative and lively introduction, was that a comic book like that could showcase less prominent characters, test whether they might be popular enough to warrant further use.
So get busy! Get that new comic book, dubbed The Justice Society, out of our collective imaginations and onto the newsstands!
And so they did. The JSA, at first a quarterly, was soon promoted to bi-monthly status and continued to grace the nation’s magazine venues until 1951, when comic books as both popular entertainment and profit centers entered their dark age, a period when they barely survived as publishing enterprises.
That tale, sad though it is, had a happy ending when comic books, and particularly superhero comic books, were reinvented and began flourishing. (You wouldn’t be reading this if that hadn’t happened.) The JSA came back somewhat altered and rechristened The Justice League of America.
The JLA was one of my first assignments when I went to work for what had, by then, become DC Comics. I don’t think I knew the size of the bite I’d taken when I took the job. It can be challenging to conjure up a worthy opponent for a single super person and thus provide conflict and drama and all that good stuff. Writing a book like JLA the writer has to provide woes for seven or eight or more. But, as the volume we’re discussing proves, writers and artists have been doing that, doing it entertainingly, for three quarters of a century.
Once a year, Julie Schwartz would revive the JSA, who, you will be happy to know, were living in another dimension, and team them with their modern counterparts. I did one of those stories, which is how I come to be represented in the volume we’re discussing and why I got copies of it, and there you go, full and unnecessary disclosure.
I’m glad to see my work in such righteous company.