Hi, fans! This is not Denny O’Neil. It’s Editorboy once again.
As it turns out, there’s a flock of bugs invading the Atlantic Northeast and at least one of them bit our erstwhile columnist. Denny is “under the weather.” He’s taking all kinds of pills and doing all kinds of healthy things in order to obliterate the bug, or at least confuse it real bad.
He’s on the mend, and should be back in this space next week. Our warmest wishes for Denny’s speedy recovery.
The natives of the planet Clabdabalum use a language which is, at its purest, non-verbal – in fact, non-communicative. However, over the millennia, it has been corrupted by verbal elements. (In Clabdabalum version of the Genesis myth, Adam and Eve are tempted by a grammar text.) This pidgin lingo lacks every part of speech that we Terrans use except one: pronouns. The Clabdabians have only one pronoun and that pronoun has no tense, nor does it have a gender, which is not surprising considering that the Clabdabians themselves have no gender, which may be why they’ve never made it big. (They may or may not have tenses. It’s hard to tell.)
Having only a single pronoun to work with, the Clabdabian writers’ output is pretty sparse and so they have not yet evolved the need for editors. Some might say that this is a sign of advanced intelligence, but I’m not among them. (Editors are splendid creatures who miss godhood by only a dangling participle or two.) But, a Clabdabian might ask, what does an editor do, exactly?
You’re waiting for an answer, aren’t you?
Well, wait! I won’t offer a concise definition because mine is not a one-size-fits-all universe. There seems to be a number of ways to be an editor and I suspect that those who eventually become good at the job decide what has to be done and then find strategies to make the task doable with their own strengths and preferences. They’re also well-advised to beware of their weaknesses and devise tricks to compensate for what they lack.
Okay, now that we have that settled… I will, shyly and timidly, proffer another suggestion. It’s not a good idea to do what I did during my first brief attempt to be a DC Comics editor, way back in the 70s, and that was to make the scripts I edited resemble the scripts I wrote. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the best I could hope to achieve with this ill-conceived ploy was to get second- or third-rate O’Neil and what I really should have wanted was first-rate (fill in the name of your favorite comics writer). That doesn’t mean give the writer total freedom to do as the writer chooses; I have great respect for people who follow their own muses and produce what they want to produce when they want to produce it. But they, bless them, do not work for companies owned by others, as do many comics writers and almost all movie and television scripters. This need to follow… let’s call them “guidelines…” does not preclude a writer becoming emotionally and intellectually involved in the work. The great Raymond Chandler said that the trick for the commercial writer is to give the boss what he’s paying you for, but get what you want in there, too. He proved it can be done and so have legions of others.
I doubt that any of them were Clabdabian but hey… you never know.
P.S.: “Snut” is the pronoun referred to above.
P.P.S.: Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I received from Jim McLauchlin:
We’re not always aces when it comes to accurate prophecy, we comic book pundits, though we shouldn’t hang our collective head too far down because prophecy doesn’t seem to be anybody’s strong point.
Anyway, almost eight years ago, in a precursor of this weekly blather, when I was younger and less evolved – I still had fur on top – I wondered if the meme of the costumed superhero was passé. Quoth I: “…what we’re asking now is, are costumed heroes an idea whose time has gone? Has the genre become too sophisticated for this part of its yesterday? Apparently, those who labor in television think so. None of video’s superfolk wear stuff that couldn’t be gotten at an upscale mall…”
That was then and this is now and the fortune telling implicit in what’s quoted above was as accurate as your newspaper’s daily horoscope. That is, not very. But it might be accurate in a year or seven; technology has hugely accelerated pop culture and the times are always a’changin. But that may be then and this is now and now superhero costumes are in no danger of extinction.
Look no further than the nearest movie screen. Superman, Iron Man, Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, The X Men. Spider-Man, Catwoman and, waiting in the wings, truth-inducing lariat at the ready, Wonder Woman. None of these people buy their business wardrobe at Marshall’s. Can’t get to the movies? (Yeah, well, ten bucks a ticket is kind of stiff, especially if you’re a fast food worker or a Walmart employee.) Go to the television set. There are currently two comic book-derived prime time shows on the tube, not counting cartoons, and one of them, Arrow, puts characters in costumes – maybe not costumes as blatant as the comics incarnations of those characters sport, but not what you’d wear to Sunday services, either. And more costume-wearers are in Arrow’s future, among them The Bronze Tiger and The Question. (I’ll plead that The Question’s mask is a costume as Will Eisner apparently thought The Spirit’s mask and gloves qualified as a costume.)
The Flash, who currently appears in Arrow in his alternate identity, will have his own show soon and, boy, The Flash – now there’s a costume-wearer! (Minor trivia note: The Flash was the hero of an earlier television program that ran in 1990-1991 and was largely written by comics’ own stalwart Howard Chaykin.)
The other comic book show is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and there is no spectacular apparel on view in it, but maybe there ought to be. We find the program, well…okay. If we want an action show with a twist of heroic fantasy, S.H.I.E.L.D. does the job. But if we yearn for a superhero fix, the show doesn’t deliver. Mentally bracket it with Covert Affairs, globe-trotting adventure stuff that has a slightly different vibe than the fantasy-melodrama that’s the realm of the super folk.
Next week, a different topic, but I can’t foresee what it will be.
One of those, you know, jangly weeks: we arrived in Austin wearing the winter garb appropriate for Newark, where we began the journey, and stepped from the airline terminal into 70 degrees and regretted our bag full of long sleeves. Looked like it was going to be a sweaty few days, maybe, but not to worry: the temperature dropped thirty degrees overnight and by daylight, my cold weather jacket was appropriate and when we again moved into the outdoors we got our first bite of winter. No big problem: our destination, the Austin convention center, was just across a narrow street.
The convention was what conventions are, these days, with maybe more television actors than comics folk. We did manage to raise a few bucks for The Hero Initiative, always a good reason to go someplace, but the chill kept us close to the hotel and so we didn’t see much of Austin which, I’m told and still believe, is a righteous city. Maybe next time.
I didn’t speak to any of the celebs, either, though some of them have done work I enjoy. Never do chat with the thespians, even though I’ve been sharing con programs with their ilk for decades. Probably never will. (Maybe not next time.)
I’m the anti-fan I won’t approach VIPs, even when I could jury rig a reason to. Mari and I were sitting in a bakery during our first visit to what is now our home town and, I’ll be darned, who walks in but Alec Baldwin and his then-wife, Kim Basinger, and another woman, a nanny, I’d guess, holding a baby whose last name undoubtedly was Baldwin. They sat nearby. Now – small world – our son had recently spoken with Alec during a visit to Hollywood about a project they might have shared, though they didn’t, and so we had a great conversational opener, and Mari looked like she’d use it. But not grumpy me. I shook my head no and pretty soon we left.
Another instance: Larry Hama and I were playing video games in a California hotel and in comes TV’s Kojak, Telly Savalas. He stands between us, kibitzing for about five minutes, being ignored by the comic book guys from New York.. He leaves. Who could blame him? (Who the hell did we think we were?)
Why does my nose rise into the air when I encounter the renowned? The answer does me no particular credit. What it comes down to is, I’m afraid that they’ll be jerks and I won’t like them, or, worse, it will be obvious that they don’t like me, and this emotional frisson will get between me and the venerable person’s work. I won’t be able to enjoy it and that could be regrettable.
The weather in Austin continued to be iffy and for a while, there seemed to be a possibility that we’d be snowed in. The flight was late taking off and we were cramped for hours – were the new airline seats designed by Torquemada? – and I was thinking Oh just, please, let me get to my cozy home. We got here and found the house cold. The heating system had failed and we were a pair of icy oldsters. But a savior drove in from Orangeburg past midnight and got the heating machine working and I later thought What a great job this guy has…driving alone through the night making people warm…
Well, between the jangly week’s beginning and a major holiday a few days later, and some mild sore-throat/cough/sniffle action, we didn’t see the new Hunger Games movie. If I were into idolatry, I might adore the film’s star, the splendid Jennifer Lawrence. As long as I didn’t have to meet her.
Is Hourman Lance Armstrong’s patron superhero? Does Jose Conseco cherish his copy of All-Star Comics #1, featuring Hourman? Did Alex Rodriguez have his own special version of the Miraclo pill, Hourman’s after dinner mint of choice?
Ah yes, Hourman: one of the second (or third) string superheroes created just as the nation was edging into World War Two and decades before the athletes named above and other sports stars were accused of using steroids to enhance performance.
Hourman is not a character who has ever occupied much of my attention. I’ve been aware of him for a long time, and that could mean that I encountered him when I was very, very young, or that I came across him when I was working for DC Comics. I may have even considered reviving him. I wouldn’t put it past me, the editor who, quite briefly, resurrected the original Vigilante, because I remembered liking him when, again, I was very, very young, and Air Wave because I thought I could give him a quirky spin. (These were not my most glorious moments as a DC employee, these flings with yesteryear.) But now, there he is, camping in my psyche – Hourman is back (should we rejoice?) thanks to our brethren in videoland, who are planning an Hourman television show. If the news item I read was accurate, they have ideas for a fresh take on the man of the hour.
The original Hour-Man (he later lost the hyphen) was Rex Tyler who, while working as a research scientist, discovered a drug that would give him super strength and super speed but only, darn it, for an hour. He made two decisions: he would limit trials of the drug, dubbed Miraclo, to himself, presumably to spare innocents possible side-effects, and he would use his awesome but temporary powers for good. As origin gimmicks go, this isn’t bad: it’s novel, and it builds into the premise the venerable ticking clock plot trope. And in the innocent forties, readers probably weren’t bothered by the notion that problems could be solved by swallowing something; anyone who’s ever struggled with addiction knows that the notion is dangerous. To their credit, later writers acknowledged this danger and gave Hourman a druggie’s woes.
The television Hourman’s power will be a form of prophecy. He will be able to see into the future – but, alas, only a single hour into the future. Extremely useful at the race track, but not much good at questions of geopolitics. But it might facilitate some interesting storytelling, especially if the writers are allowed to do heavy character stuff. How would being able to glimpse the future twist a man’s psyche? Would the man become addicted to the facilitating drug and/or the powers it gives him? In popular fiction, it’s always the recipe that matters most, not the ingredients. The Hourman show, if it ever gets onto a television screen near you, might be worth – yes! – an hour of your time.
I’ve gone into hundreds, maybe thousands of theaters, but entering the Regal Cinema last week was a bit unique. This Regal had only been in business a few days – to all intents and purposes it was brand new – and so everything about it was clean and pleasant and orderly, the rugs unspotted, the air untainted, the seats deep and sumptuously padded. And I think I felt a slight tingle of anticipation as I crossed the lobby.
I wonder if I felt a similar tingle the first time someone, almost certainly my mother, took me to the picture show. I would have been just past toddlerhood and so my world would have still be surprising and numinous and I’d be into a strange place, my hand in another, familiar hand, stepping into a semidarkness full of strangers, looking up at a big white thing that suddenly brightened and was full of motion and I was in the presence of something new and wonderful. Remember – this was in the early 1940s. In that era, a boy barely past infancy would never have seen even a television, nor would anyone else he knew because the video invasion was not happening until after the war, so pictures that moved? And talked? Magic!
What did I see? Maybe a newsreel – they still showed newsreels, back then – and maybe a Three Stooges or a Pete Smith Specialty. And a cartoon? Woody Woodpecker or Bugs Bunny or Mighty Mouse or Donald Duck? (If it was a Donald Duck, I would have also seen, the first of many such sightings, the name “Walt Disney,” though, of course, the letters would have been only incomprehensible shapes, reading being as yet an unsolved mystery.) Then, the feature, probably a double feature, long pictures about… cowboys? Or people who did funny things, like the Three Stooges? Or both? Might have been both! Why not both?
Marvel superheroes didn’t yet exist when I toddled into the land of cinema, though they sure as shooting exist now and it was a Marvel movie that I saw last week at the Regal: Thor: The Dark World. Enjoyed it, the wife and I, and since I never worked on the Thor character during my employment at Mighty Marvel, I brought no particular baggage to the event. I left my (sumptuously padded) seat thinking that Thor was Marvel’s answer to the Tolkein adaptations – those Hobbits and their quest and their adventures – and that the filmmakers were doing something some science fiction writers were doing about about 50 years ago, conflating mythology with sf, and doing it pretty well, too. And they’re doing it under the aegis of the company started by Donald Duck’s boss.
I saw Walt himself when he appeared on the Disneyland television show in 1954, when I would have been about 15 and, well… something about him bothered me, just a tiny bit. What? Could it be his mustache? It was like the lip hair sported by a recent presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, who my parents didn’t vote for, possibly because he was a Republican and his opponent, Harry S. Truman, came from our home state of Missouri. Something else, though? Hey… the bad guys in the cowboy movies – not the bad guys out on the trail who got shot or punched by the good guys, but the sneaky bad guys who lurked in back rooms and schemed – they often had those kinds of mustaches.
And all those years past, sitting in the darkness next to a parent – did I see a mustached bad guy on the screen and is that why I didn’t instantly like Walt Disney? You tell me.
So there they were on the small screen, Oliver Queen and his main man, knocking back vodka shots and there I was, riding the couch and being maybe a bit befuddled, remembering that an MD once told me that vodka was the alcoholic’s libation of choice because it didn’t have much telltale odor. (As you lurch into the china cabinet, mom thinks you’re having a little inner ear problem.)
Ollie Queen and John Diggle were drinking vodka.
Of course, plenty of people devoid of drinking problems know the taste of vodka and scotch and brandy and absinthe and beer and the rest of the barman’s wares, and booze has been a part of civilized culture for millennia, even part of religious ritual. But I have a question for which I don’t have an answer and its this: Should heroes drink?
Consider: heroes are, among other things, role models and they appear as such in the fiction of everyone from Ayn Rand to Aesop. We seek other humans to admire – ask Evolution why – and that search leads us to heroes, both fictional and the real life versions: Athletes and musicians and actors who perhaps acquire a bit of the mystique of the stalwarts they portray. (And so life imitates art imitating and amplifying life and does anyone have a headache yet?) Our ad men know this, which is why they write checks to celebrities willing to smile at the camera and just love the living heck out of a product that you, yourself, can buy and thus, in some tiny way, emulate the objects of your admiration. It’s an old ploy and it must work because they keep doing it. Should they do it to promote alcohol? Or, more insidiously, should boozing be promoted outside advertisements by showing the good guys doing it?
If there’s a line to be drawn, I don’t know where it is.
One of the problems with alcohol is that when you take that first sip, you don’t know if every subsequent sip will be taken only on holidays in extreme moderation, or if someday you’ll find yourself puking in a gutter.
We know, from our nation’s horribly failed experiment with prohibition, and our more recent disastrous “war on drugs” that banning the citizenry’s recreational intoxicants is not wise. And there’s the matter of that pesky First Amendment, which, in effect, forbids censorship of anything spoken or written and surely that includes the words and actions of televised performers.
But to persuade some bonny young person that the gateway to sophistication, wit, and devastating attractiveness is found inside a bottle is to tell a seductive and potentially ruinous lie. Some will content themselves with that taste of holiday wine, sure, but others will find their way to the gutter.
In the end, I guess, creators must decide for themselves where the danger begins – with booze and tobacco and drugs and, hell, even with certain combat techniques. Sometimes, storytelling can be a bitch.
I doubt that anyone who cared was surprised when, last week, Diane Nelson, the high honcho of DC Comics, announced that the company was relocating to Burbank in about a year. The move had been rumored for a long time, particularly afterDC became part of a movie making company, Warner Bros., of which you may have heard. It was only logical: Manhattan real estate comes with a mighty price and so it seemed to make sense to leave New York and go where the parent company already owned property.
Once, on a business trip, Dick Giordano and I established very brief headquarters on the sprawling Warner’s lot, which had vacant offices we could use. So: empty space, huh? Interesting. And a publishing venture no longer much needed to be located in New York: electronic communications largely eliminated the required treks writers and artists made to midtown. No need to endure the subway when you could pop your work into a fax machine and, later, discuss it with your editor by telephone, all without changing out of your pajamas. And yeah, yeah, I know: fax machines – stone age stuff. But not to us, not then. And pretty soon, the technology got really nifty.
Sure, once in a while, usually when contemplating a complicated stunt, I thought it best to get some creative people together in a room and that was always possible – you know, airplanes and the like – and I always preferred to discuss plots with the writer and me breathing the same air, but that wasn’t strictly necessary. Mostly, editorial chores could be done with someone who lived in the United Kingdom as easily as with someone who lived in Brooklyn.
What we may not have been properly mindful of was that our most reliable product, superhero stories, weren’t about print and paper anymore; they had become about images on screens large and small, most serviceable in theaters and on television. They still have a place on paper and, I’m pretty sure, will continue to do so, and maybe one of you savants out there will write a monograph explaining why print is the proper venue for our characters but, bite the bullet, flicks and the tube are where the major action is. In the best superhero tradition, they’re going where they’re most needed,
My reaction? It’s never a good idea to get into a scrap with what is.
A few years ago, DC relocated some people, some of my former colleagues, from New York to California. In retrospect, that was the opening move, the fulfillment of an event long anticipated. Then the Mad Magazine offices became a suite of empty rooms: move number two. And now… amen. An era quietly ends.
Hey there, true believer, when you book to the multiplex to see the new Thor flick, you won’t be seeing just a movie, or even just a superhero movie – you’ll be seeing a Marvel movie! And you’ll know it almost from the moment the feature begins to unreel. How? Easy! The word MARVEL will be splashed across the big screen, white letters against a red field – no point in being subtle, here. There may be references to other Marvel movies as the drama unfolds and, count on this, after the end credits – and you are going to stay for them, aren’t you? – there will be a brief final scene that hooks you into another Marvel movie! Or two, maybe.
Almost like it was all planned from the beginning, this creation of the Marvel brand, and in a way, it was. And by “beginning” I don’t mean…oh, say 2002, when Tobey McGuire put on the Spidey suit and began slinging webs. No, we’re referring to the 1960s when Stan Lee was busy revolutionizing the comic book biz. He once told me that he wanted everything Marvel to support everything else Marvel, and he made that happen, insofar as it could happen back in the dark ages. (No Internet? No smart phones? iPads? Google? Facebook? Not even – you gotta be kidding me! – fax machines?)
So Smilin’ Stan Lee created the Marvel Universe, a mirror image of our universe, but a universe not quite so beholden to life’s drearier realities – one in which superheroes could and did exist. Characters from one title popped up in another title and all the costume wearers seemed to know, or at least know of, each other. It was a cohesive fictional construct, this Marvel Universe, and it was given to us almost whimsically; footnotes and text pages and even cover copy emphasized fun and hinted that we didn’t have to take anything in a Marvel book too seriously. Y’know, just hunker down and enjoy. Oh, and you didn’t have much doubt that you were reading, not just a comic book, but a Marvel comic book.
The movie and television folk seem to have learned from the smilin’ one. They’ve taken Stan Lee’s paradigm, adapted it to their media, and achieved marketing success and, recently, a fair degree of artistic respectability. What Stan might call “the Marvel manner” has survived metamorphosis from cheap pulp magazine filler to the stuff of hugely elaborate and technologically sophisticated cinema.
Those cheap pulp magazines? Well, they’re not pulpy anymore and, let’s face it, not so darn cheap, either. But they’re still comic books – Marvel comic books. Somehow, the publishing arm of the Marvel empire has preserved some of its identity though decades of varying ownership and turnover of personnel in both the marketing and the editorial offices. And a lot of artists and writers, including your humble correspondent, have worked for and/or at both Marvel and its rival DC, and still at least a ghost of Stan Lee’s vision persists.
I haven’t mentioned Marvel’s television show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Well, the lead character has mentioned his appearance in Marvel’s big screen Avengers and the word on the street is that S.H.I.E.L.D. will have some connection to the next Captain America flick. ‘Nuff said?
Okay, that was lame. But at least it served to usher us into the movie that provides this week’s blather. (Did I do it again? Oh, my!)
Gravity is, for the third straight week, the box office champ. Most people, including Mari and I, liked it. Most, but not all. I’m aware of two kinds of criticism, leveled at the film by two of the men I most respect, both of whom shall remain anonymous, not because I’m playing the “unnamed sources” game, but because I can’t quote them exactly.
First criticism was expressed last week by a much lauded novelist and critic. He had compliments for the filmmaking, but mild complaints about the characters played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Old hat. Too clichéd. The kind of cardboard that the art of cinema should be past by now.
Point taken. But a placid defense: the movie isn’t about the characters; they are devices, vehicles to move the narrative forward, given just enough backstory to save them from being total ciphers. They’re like the characters in old-fashioned detective stories – the lounge lizard, the jealous husband, the kindly vicar, the shrewd amateur sleuth, the scarlet woman. They exist as elements in a puzzle, like the X’s and O’s in a game of tic tac toe. And if that’s the kind of pleasure you’re after, the puzzle solving kind, Mr. X and Miss O will do.
Gravity, I will claim, is about state-of-the-art space travel and filmmaking itself, about the spectacular illusions directors are capable of these days. The story gives them an excuse for being presented in pretty darn fancy theaters and even manages to generate a little suspense. It does its job, and so do Ms. Bullock and Mr. Clooney.
The second criticism, proffered by one of our best public intellectuals, is a bit thornier. Our critic finds fault with the science the movie offers as fact, and, given his credentials and track record, I do not doubt for a second that his disapproval is justified.
When I worked the superhero dodge, I had a rule of thumb: Any acknowledged, verifiable fact must be accurate. So you don’t call a solar system a galaxy or have guys schlep unshielded radioactive ore without suffering consequences, or populate Mars with green hotties who swim in the canals. The idea was to avoid adding to the planet’s burden of misinformation because some folk, somewhere, are likely to believe your nonsense. But made-up technology – time travel, faster-than-light drives – sure, have it do whatever your plot needs it to do. At least until somebody invents time travel or star drives.
A tiny caveat: it’s nice if even your fabricated science has at least a distant acquaintance with something genuine, and the farther shores of speculative physics might provide a writer with a lot of inspiration.
Gravity doesn’t pretend to be a lesson in astrophysics, any more than it pretends to be a probe of the human condition. So, it entertains, and it has done its work. And, arguably, just portraying brainy people as cool and making general audiences aware of physics are services, a task our schools don’t seem to be doing very well. In a recent survey, high schoolers in the United States ranked 25th in math and science among their peers in 34 other nations. Ouch!
So, can we agree? Gravity is good, which should be a load off Isaac Newton’s mind. But I can’t help wishing that they’d gotten their facts straight.