Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: Marvel, DC, and Higgs

superman_vs_spider_manOkay now, try to stay with me because we’re going pretty deep…

Those of you who were among the Faithful last week remember that we touched, very, very lightly, on a feature that the great comic book editor Julius Schwartz ran in a science fiction title published in the 50s. The comic book was titled Strange Adventures and Julie called the feature “Science Says You’re Wrong If You Believe That…” The format was: somewhere south of the ellipse was a brief, illustrated bit of information about some science-related topic. (Science Says You’re Wrong If You Believe That…I’m qualified to write about science?)

The point of the preceding paragraph was to establish bona fides. See, science belongs in this column because it’s been here before. Isn’t that logical? And easy?

Now we come to the crux of our elucidation: Have you noticed, any of you at all, that despite the elapse of more than a half century and a pretty steady exchange of creative personnel, and a colossal evolution of subject matter, narrative and visual techniques, printing technology, distribution means, business practices, societal respectability and maybe other stuff that I’m forgetting, that the Big Two comics publishers, Marvel and DC, have maintained distinct identities? There are Marvel comics and DC comics and, I might argue, if you caught me in a contentious mood, that True Fans can tell the difference even if there are no visual cues. (Such a cue might be the words Marvel Comics on the cover. Yeah, that might be all a real sharp tack might need.) Even if you don’t agree, pretend that you do while we forge ahead.

Said forging now suggests that I share with you a scrap of information from the essential Wikipedia,, available with a quick Google. “In theosophy and anthrosophy, the Akashic records…are a compendium of thoughts, events, and emotions believed by Theosophists to be encoded in a non-physical plane of existence known as the astral plane…

Okay, one more bit of info and then the payoff.

The bit: Physicists have confirmed the existence of what they call “the Higgs field,” which is an energy field that is everywhere in the universe. (It’s what gives particles mass, but never mind that.)

Now, as promised, the payoff, in the form of some questions: What if the Akashic records and the Higgs field are identical? And what if things like the establishment of editorial identities make an impression on the records/field that persisted forever? So wouldn’t whatever invokes those identities automatically take on the characteristics of the original, even if said characteristics are completely indetectable? Which certainly explains why Marvel Comics and DC Comics are still distinct from one another, doesn’t it?

Well, I’m glad we got that settled. Science might not agree – might say we’re wrong – but science says you’re wrong if you believe that we’ve got to believe science when we don’t agree with it. Or not.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Science Says You’re Wrong If You Believe…

Pluto

Now I know that some of you are huge – huge! – science fans while others… well, you might prefer to get your science from old Julius Schwartz comic books. (Remember those old filler features that Julie ran? “Science Says You’re Wrong If You Believe…) You guys – you Juliers – can consider your class dismissed until next week. You others?

Let us consider Pluto. No, not the Roman god of the underworld, or Disney’s canine, and certainly not Popeye’s archenemy – that was Bluto-with-a-B. We mean the planet. Pluto-the-planet has been much in the news this past week because we put a spacecraft within about 7000 miles of the planet’s surface which, in astronomical terms, is the back yard, and it sent back a lot of data and will continue downloading information for months. So, at the end of the process, we’ll know a lot about Pluto and maybe have some of the Big Questions answered, stuff like why/how are planets and solar systems formed and what the heck are we doing here, anyway.

Oh, and you fussers out there – I know that poor Pluto is no longer considered a full-blown planet. A few years back the people whose job it is to do things like decide on the classification of astral bodies, folks like Neil deGrasse Tyson, decided Pluto was too small to qualify as a planet and so they renamed it a dwarf planet and dwarf-schmarf, say I. The naming business is all arbitrary anyway. The universe doesn’t classify. We do. As human activities go, this one is pretty harmless and if you want to use the “dwarf” label, be my guest. But I’ll stick to calling that orb at the edge of our solar system a plain old “planet,” thank you very much.

Did I mention that I’m fond of (planet) Pluto? A decade ago I made it a character – well, an object, really – in a novel. I’m not sure why. I guess I thought my plot needed something at the far reaches of the solar system and Pluto, 4.67 billion-with-a-B miles away, certainly qualifies.

I got all the information I needed about it from a book I can recommend Don’t Know Much About The Universe, by Kenneth C. Davis. It’ll also tell you about the other planets and the sun and like that. Readable and informative.

Why bother to do this (very minor) bit of research? Maybe it’s my journalism background or maybe I just need a good laxative, but I think we writers, even we fiction writers, have an obligation to society not to spread misinformation. That’s the politicians’ job. If you’re equipping your hero with a Whoseatronic Ray Blaster, you can make it be or do whatever you like. You’ve just made it up, after all. But if you use something that’s real, be accurate. There’s already enough bad info out there.

And by the way…Science Says You’re Wrong If You Believe That Pluto Is that damn dog.

 

Dennis O’Neil: San Diego Comic-Con – The Once and Only?

San Diego Comic Con

Big sigh of relief, right? It’s history. Again. I wasn’t there, but you were, and your sigh of relief may be mixed with fondness, disappointment, frustration, triumph… maybe plain old-fashioned jet lag. Depends on the kind of con you had. Expectations fulfilled? Thwarted? A little of both?

I refer, of course, to the just concluded San Diego Comic Con. I didn’t attend the 2015 edition, but I’ve gone to the show often in the past, so hey, I know a little of whereof I speak. That guy over in the corner is saying that, matter of fact, he hasn’t attended the con, ever. Okay, try to make it next year. It’s an experience everyone should have –once. Twice? Well, depends on your tolerance for huge crowds, noise, and a vast arena filed with manic energy. For some, this is tonic. For others, maybe not so much. You decide after that first visit.

The con has become, among other things, a gathering of the tribes. You can expect to run into colleagues and fellow enthusiasts from all over and maybe some deals get made, and maybe a romance is kindled, or maybe you’ll just enjoy meeting people you’d forgotten existed, but are glad they do, and surely that’s pleasure enough.

You’ll also have the opportunity to share oxygen with celebrities, if you’ve a mind to, and stand in line to pay them real money in exchange for their autographs. Or you can just attend their events and learn of their latest projects and for some, that is pleasure enough.

Am I forgetting anything?

Oh yeah. Comics. It is a comic con, after all, and there is plenty of comic book action. Old issues for sale, and plenty of comics-related merchandize. (I own a hoodie with a bat symbol emblazoned across the front and another that kind of looks like Dr. Who’s Tardis. Didn’t get ‘em in San Diego, but I did buy them at comic conventions.) And there is a generous number of panels and talks devoted to comics, so if funny books are your joy, buy a ticket and find a seat in the ballroom.

The complaint here might be that the comics activities are eclipsed by the celebrity stuff, and while that’s true, I don’t think it’s worth getting fussy about. As noted in the paragraph perched atop this one, there’s no shortage of comic book material, at San Diego or any of the other cons I’ve attended. That could change, I guess, but for now, the needs of us print lovers – call us fossils if you must – are being met.

When I first became aware of the San Diego show, I had doubts. The city was stuck way at the western end of the country, just a few miles from the Mexican border that has Mr. Trump so fretful, and who’s going to make that trek just for a convention if they live in the east or midwest? This year, the answer… according to published estimates, is 130,000 attendees. A lot. And the success of the affair has helped haul that step-child of publishing, the comic book, up into respectability.

See you next year?

Dennis O’Neil: The Grand Old Flags

captain-confederacyIt’s certainly flaggy out there, isn’t it. Flags in the news and flags in the environment.

That’s business as usual at this time of year, of course. The Fourth of July – time to celebrate our nation’s birthday and the way many of us do that is to stick what some call “Old Glory” onto porches and poles, if we can find them.

Then there’s that other flag, the one that’s been in the news. Call it the “Stars and Bars” and you can probably find someone who’ll nod in agreement. But that flag isn’t so much going up as coming down. It’s partisans say that although old S&B merely celebrates the south’s heritage and traditions, nobody can deny that the thing is the battle flag of an army that sought to overthrow the federal government and preserve the institution of slavery. Heap on all the genteel verbal niceties in your repertoire and you still won’t obliterate that nasty slavery business.

But isn’t the First Amendment the crown jewel of our national documentation and doesn’t it guarantee freedom of speech and isn’t flying the flag of my preference an exercise of that freedom? What happened in Georgia – that mass murderer perpetuated by a racist who presumably has no problem with slavery and posed for a photo with old S&B… sure, that was terrible, some would say, but remember freedom of speech! You can’t make me take down my flag!

There really isn’t a big problem here. I can’t, and would not, insist you strike the Stars and Bars that flies on your property, even though I despise its meaning. But flying it on state property is another matter. The conflation of flag and government has to mean that the government approves of what the flag stands for, that it represents national ideals, and the Stars and Bars was created to signify an approval of slavery.

As for Old Glory…if you’re in uniform, you’d better salute it. There might be an officer watching. Treat that flag with reverence, mister!

Or don’t. I never quite understood flag worship. When I was a nipper, I learned (from the Boy Scouts?) that the flag should be accorded almost as much reverence as we proffered to the consecrated host at Mass. There were rules about when it was to be raised and lowered, how it should be folded – and never, never should it be allowed to touch the ground, any more than the host would be accorded such indignity. I don’t think wearing a Scout uniform obligated one to salute Old Glory. But I dunno..better safe than sorry?

What about superheroes? Do they have to salute? Their work clothes are sometimes called “uniforms,” after all. But no. Those aren’t uniforms. “Uniform,” after all, means a style of dress worn so members of an organization – usually a military or law-enforcing group – can identify one another and the status of the wearer within that group. Although there are exceptions, most superhero suits are unique, intended to signify the also unique individuals wearing them.

As for those exceptions: do you really think you wouldn’t be able to tell Superman from Supergirl because they sported similar threads? Or the Thing from the Human Torch?

No, those aren’t superhero uniforms. They’re costumes. Really different things. On behalf of English majors everywhere, I implore you to get it right.

Still, if you’re a superdoer and you happen to be passing a flag…better safe than sorry?

 

Dennis O’Neil: Is Superman Super-Smart?

superman

Yeah, I’ve heard that Superman is super smart as well as super all the other stuff he’s super at, but I don’t know. I can’t recall a single instance where he thought his way past some obstacle. More likely, he’d just uproot the obstacle and toss it to somewhere like Jupiter. Maybe he is really bright and it’s just easier to toss a problem to Jupiter than cogitate about it. But the question is there.

I mean, if he’s so smart how come he can’t remember his own name? You ask how I know that he can’t? (Maybe you’re not so smart?) It’s that big S on his chest. The darn thing serves on purpose other than that of forcing script writers to jump through hoops explaining why it’s there. And why is that? Could it be that the S is a prompt for those times, after a long bout with Kryptonite, say, when the Man of Steel needs a little help in the memory department. A quick glance at the torso and… oh, yeah, S. I’m Superman. Now if only I could recall what I’m faster than…

Allow me to escort you out of the world where we treat Superman like someone who actually exists and into the present moment, where/when we will let ourselves wonder why Joe Shuster, the guy who did the visual part of creating Supes, decided to put the S where it is in the first place. I looked at the earliest drawing I could find and yep, there it is, the S, encased in something that resembles an arrowhead. Present at the beginning, albeit in a pre-evolved form. What inspired teenage Joe to add it, that Cleveland summer’s day some 82 tears ago?

Both Joe and his writer-collaborator, Jerry Siegel, are gone and, I think, they weren’t nearly as often interviewed as they should have been, so, barring some new information, we’ll probably never know what was in Joe’s head. The best guesses I’ve heard regarding superhero suits, is that they were inspired by circus costumes and/or the illustrations in the science fiction pulps that Joe and Jerry almost certainly read.

Seems reasonable. But: no thoracic initials in those clothes. And none on the Phantom’s wardrobe, either. The Phantom’s creator, Lee Falk, later said that the Phantom’s outfit was inspired by the movies’ Robin Hood. Wherever it came from, it certainly is a recognizable superhero costume. But no dorsal P. Falk debuted the Phantom in 1936 and so his masked jungle dweller beat Superman into print by about two years. But Superman was created as a newspaper strip in 1933 and languished until Joe and Jerry peddled it to Max Gaines for use in one of those new funny book magazines. So the Phantom likely didn’t influence Superman and vice versa.

But the meme Joe and Jerry created, the costumed superman, influenced dozens – hundreds? thousands? – of later creations, a number of whom had something on their chests. No initials: that element of the meme was not widely imitated. But lanterns, lightning bolts, bats, stars, and my favorite, sported by a character named E-Man, Einstein’s E=MC2. Yep, world’s most famous equation, right there below his collarbone.

Ah, but does any of this mean anything? Well, does it?

 

Dennis O’Neil: Rituals

Flag BannerOur hearts are going out and it was a terrible tragedy and we’ll remember those innocent victims in our prayers and maybe a politician or two will make propaganda out of it but that’s what politicians do and did I mention prayers and anyway we won’t be bothered about it for long and it’ll be forgotten until the next one…

There are reasons we have rituals. They help us bond as a community – whatever that community happens to be – and they offer us comfort when we encounter the horrifying. In the earliest of human civilizations, rituals had survival value, helping people  cooperate and giving them the courage we needed to slog through another day, and maybe the our rituals still have some of that value. But I think we’ve begun to adapt them to another use that may not be beneficial. We’re going through our motions so we feel we’ve done something and that relieves us of the obligation to do more, to act meaningfully.

Here in the United States, there have been over a dozen mass shootings in the last six years.

No other advanced nation has this problem.

I could go on, but I won’t.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Crisis On Infinite Superheroes

Simpsons Huck Finn

Cozy down on your couch and wait for it: A Supergirl series coming soon – well, in the fall – to a television set near you. And a new superhero on The Flash and what looks like some supering up of already existing character or characters on Arrow and and and…

I’ll bet the corridors of the media giants in Hollywood and New York (and Chicago? London?) are absolutely buzz with plans and proposals for more stories about that congregation who wear peculiar costumes and bash. I think they call it extending the franchise, and it is nothing new. My current favorite example from antiquity is the King Arthur saga which was kind of inspired by rales of a fifth or sixth century British ruler who fought Saxon invaders. (Did he really exist? Was he compounded of several rulers? Let us shrug and get on with it.)

Anyway, it wasn’t until the twelfth century that Arthur’s tales began to be written down and circulated, though some stuff may have been forever lost in the long gap between inspiration and dissemination. There have been adaptations and additions and redaction ever since. Almost certainly, somewhere on this green planet, someone is even now working on an Arthur piece.

That’s my current favorite example of franchise fattening in Days of Yore, but there are others, including the Tom Sawyer books – Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective that your English teacher neglected to mention. Heck, even what is by many considered to be the best American novel ever, Huckleberry Finn, could be considered to be an early extension of the Sawyer franchise.

And here we jump over the rest of the Nineteenth Century and a big chunk of the Twentieth and look at comic books, which were in the franchise extending dodge from their earliest days. Like Tom and Huck, Superman and Batman were quite different, but in some ways similar. Superman is a big success and about a year later, voila – along comes Batman. Then the deluge. Dozens – hundreds? – of different-but-similars dotting the newsstands. And witch hunts followed by an implosion. Then, a revival, and here we are, watching superhero franchises being extended – not on cheap paper, but on highly sophisticated electronic delivery systems.

It’s about money, of course. I don’t know if the early King Arthur chroniclers were in it for the coins, but Mark Twain, hassled by money worries for much of his life, certainly had some financial motivation, and so has every professional storyteller since. There are downsides to this propagation of the superhero meme; attraction of creators who have no genuine liking for the material and hence to it badly and hence give others a bad rep; audience difficulty in telling one hero from the other; a dilution of what makes a character unique and interesting; and old-fashioned weariness with the genre.

But I’m of a mind to believe that none of the above guarantees inferior story quality. It’s the recipe, not the ingredients, that’s crucial.

After all, Huckleberry Finn is a pretty good read.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Caitlyn And The Real Us

O'Neil Faces

You! Yeah, you over there… you as sick of seeing pictures of Caitlyn Jenner as I am? I mean, they’re all over the place and the media are riding the story – paltry little story – like a merry-go-round unicorn.

What? You’re not sick of Jenner pix? Well, go dump your bumple – while I try to elide the above into something at least remotely appropriate for this column, which is supposed to be about comic books or pop culture or something. Here we go. I’ll assume for an as-yet undetermined amount of bandwidth that you have for the past month been on your bi-annual Zen retreat up there in those mountains, far from screens and speakers and media in general (which might explain why you’re not sick of Jenneriana) and so you don’t know that one-time Olympic medal winner Bruce Jenner has become an almost-transexual, posed for a magazine looking hotter than any 65-year-old, of any gender, ought to look, and in the process did a name-change: Bruce, look in the mirror and meet Caitlyn. Caitlyn apparently hasn’t had surgery – hence my labeling her “almost” – but in all other ways the transformation is a fact.

I commend her. Hers could not have been an easy decision to make. Let’s believe what she says – I have no reason to doubt her sincerity – and assume that all these years, from her winning Olympic glory in 1976 through semi-stardom in the Kardashian reality TV ventures after Bruce married Kardashian matriarch Kris, right up to her present notoriety glut, Jenner was hiding her real identity behind an assumed identity. “Bruce” was a mask; Caitlyn was the real person.

Claiming one’s truth is a noble act. But I can’t help wondering why it was done so publicly. The Vanity Fair cover, the television interviews, all the spangly show-biz… it’s almost as though she’s plastering a new mask over the old Bruce one. (Norma Jeane Mortenson, meet Marilyn Monroe.) And basking in the fleeting warmth of the spotlight? Again?

Some of this may seem familiar to comics fans. Ever heard, or even participated in, a debate over which is the real person Bruce Wayne or Batman? Clark Kent or Superman? Part of the appeal of the double identity trope, which isn’t limited to superheroes, is that it acknowledges and delineates basic human reality: we all present different faces to the world depending on the occasion. The you who has pizza with pals is different from the you who has dinner with grannie – and many of us, I suspect, feel that the individual society sees is not the real us. (And it probably isn’t.)

Part of me chooses to believe that Caitlyn is moving toward something valid that’s not just her ego finding another way to demand attention. (Is Batman an exhibitionist, despite his penchant for shadows?)

Now, your turn. Go and get a mask and put it on. Then find somebody who might want to look at it.

 

Dennis O’Neil and the Gremlins

GremlinBlame it on the gremlins.

Here’s a brief excerpt from last week’s column that will help you understand why we’re in the gremlin-blaming game:

If you think Im recommending the course, youre right, and so you should know its title. Happy to oblige Dr. Armstrong had reached the section of her presentation that deals with the twentieth century Arthur and spoke of Marian Zimmer Bradleys Arthurian novels you might know The Mists of Avalon and then she began to talk about Mike Barrs comics.

Notice anything missing there? Yep. After “happy to oblige” there should be the name of the course I’m recommending. And there isn’t. Tsk.

Well, let us make haste to right the wrong. I’m happy to oblige you with the following information: “King Arthur: History and Legend.”

The course is offered by The Teaching Company as part of it’s Great Courses catalogue and a quick Google should give you the particulars.

Now about those gremlins. You’ve probably heard the name and a lot of you have no doubt seen one or both of the Gremlins movies. The first is catchily titled Gremlins and the second, even catchier, Gremlins: The New Batch. The eponymous critters portrayed in the films and nasty and mean and ugly and I guess those words would do to describe chimera that inspired them. I’m not as sure as I’d like to be because gremlin data seems kind of scarce, though the ever-useful Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend gives them a goodly amount of space and tells us that “there is little agreement as to their description.”

It seems that they first appeared during the first world war and had a special affinity for bollixing aircraft. Something isn’t working and there is no earthly reason why? Only one possible answer: gremlins.

This clandestine sabotage persisted on through the second world war and I guess to the present. Now, I’m not a big believer in spookies of any sort, but if gremlins do exist they explain an awful lot about my life. Technology is not my friend. Cars, televisions, video players, global positioning trackers, and especially computers and their spawn…they’ve all had their innings making my existence a frustration. Often.

My deeply skeptical DNA sharer would say “coincidence” and I would riposte “this frigging much coincidence?” DNA sharer is pretty smart, but about this, he’s wrong. No. Unacceptable. It is saner, more logical and reasonable, to posit a malevolent intelligence, omnipresent, sly. resourceful, with infinite access to machinery and gadgets of all sorts. And he, or she, it or they, hate me. Don’t ask why. I have no idea what my offense might have been. Or when I committed it.

Maybe I’m being mistaken for some other Dennis O’Neil.

But that missing reference to the Dorsey Armstrong course? It’s in my draft and it isn’t in the printed column, so kindly draw your own conclusions. Gremlins. Has to be.

I wonder what this column fidelyobscrave trom ostitrove

 

Dennis O’Neil: Camelot 3000 and College Curricula

Camelot 3000I must have been aware of Camelot 3000 back when it was appearing in 12 parts, from 1982 to 1985, me being a honkin’ big comics pro and all, and there were a lot of comics strewing my life. And, by then, I’d known the series writer, Mike W. Barr, for years. But I don’t know how many of the installments I read, if any. As mentioned above, there were a lot of comics around me and though I was a pretty dedicated reader of things in general, I might have skipped over any comic book in which I had no professional interest. If I did miss Camelot 3000, my bad.

A few hours ago, Mari and I were watching a video course offered by The Teaching Company – let us simultaneously bow our heads and cheer – taught by a charismatic professor named Dorsey Armstrong. It dealt with a subject we don’t know much about, so sure, we were happy to learn something. We’re glad we did. If you think I’m recommending the course, you’re right, and so you should know its title. Happy to oblige: . Dr. Armstrong had reached the section of her presentation that deals with the twentieth century Arthur and spoke of Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian novels – you might know The Mists of Avalon – and then she began to talk about Mike Barr’s comics. I perked up.

Before we get to the paeans, an observation:

The inclusion of a comic book series in a course devoted to “capital L” Literature is yet further evidence that comics, as both a narrative form and a commercial enterprise, have reached full parity with all other media. (That doesn’t mean that comics, or any other print medium, assembles the mountains of money that the movies adapted from them do. But without comics, those adaptations wouldn’t happen. Duh.)

Comics are an accepted part of college curricula. Live with it, scoffers.

So what is Dr. Armstrong’s opinion of Mike Barr’s comic books? In a word: praiseworthy. She briefly discusses the plot and Mike’s take on the characters and makes the whole shebang sound both interesting – a good read – and a worthy addition to a renowned series of tales, some of which have survived for centuries.

I assume that DC Comics’ excellent library survived the company’s recent monster trek west and that it includes Camelot 3000. And I assume that somebody is in charge of reprints, though I have no idea who that might be. But whoever has that job might want to have a look at Mike Barr’s old maxi-series and consider offering it to a generation of fans who may be totally ignorant of it.