Author: Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O’Neil: Justice League Vs… Trump?


If I’d looked around my tiny, cluttered office, just before Marifran came through the door I would not have seen an Oujia Board, a tarot deck, a tortoise shell, an I Ching, tea leaves, an icoshedral apparatus, dice, Chinese coins, or even the astrology section of the Journal News. So why, when she arrived, did Marifran accuse me of being a fortune teller?

Don’t get me wrong. If you wat to believe that a deck of cards or the random formation of leaves in a cup can somehow reveal the future (or maybe even the past) or lay some coin on a nice lady who will study your palm and then…tell you something?

I’m skeptical of such business, but I’m not a total disbeliever mostly because a family friend, now gone, did some pretty inexplicable things like discerning an event in the past that Marifran does not talk about ever, not because it’s shameful but because it’s painful – this after she’d known Mari for less than an hour and refused any kind of reward. (By the way, this happened at a costume party, so Mari’s dress revealed nothing about her, though even if it had it wouldn’t help a fortune teller at work) Even if she’d accepted money, her feat would have been impressive, But she didn’t. Super impressive?

Which leaves me… where? Maybe just waiting for the jury to come in.

So…I’m waiting for the metaphorical jury to come in and instead, here comes the cute little schoolteacher and she’s saying something about me being a prophet. Huh?

Okay, back up an hour or two. I go out to get the papers and there, on the stoop, are two packages. Inside, I open them and, well, whaddaya know! Books. Big, big books. Several copies of The Bronze Age Justice League of America: Omnibus Volume One.

Lotta book there: 852 pages of story, the first published in 1969, the last in 1974. I wrote that lead story, catchily titled “Snapper Carr…Super Traitor.” In it, the JLA are trying to locate a bad guy who has technology that turns people into bullies. Eventually, they get a name for him, which is – wait for it – Trump. And on page 16, Batman thinks: I wondered what I’ve been locked in. The impromptu jail was a model of the new Trump Satellite.

The main plot concerns “Trump’s” using bigotry lies and hatred to mentally enslave the unsuspecting citizenry. There’s a final plot twist but I see no need for a spoiler alert here. You get the idea.

And I’m still not a believer. But… 48 years ago that piece appeared, long before I had the pleasure of knowing that Donald Trump existed. Coincidence? Okay. But a damn spooky one.

Dennis O’Neil: A Difference of Opinion

Back then, when the universe was trying to create justice from whatever scraps of phantom it could find, I was working for one of the all-time excellent comic book editors, writing stories about a superheroic archer. I once gave this archer a line that conflated a politician with… I don’t remember the exact wording, but it had something to do with corruption or the like. The editor seldom asked me for rewrites. He was not the kind of fellow would impose his ego on the work of others by demanding unnecessary revisions But in this instance, he asked for a tiny couple of changes: he wanted me to make “politician” plural and add “some” to modify that same “politician.” So our hero said that only some politicians were corrupt and hence not all of them were.

Big deal? Huh uh. At least it shouldn’t be. In such a situation, the person being edited can a) quietly make the change(s) and go find something useful to do, or b) holler and smash the windows and cry that his First Amendment Rights are being shredded by some crass son of a bitch who picks his nose with a tuning fork, or c) mention the disagreement to the editor and make the changes. Preferably, mention it politely…

Let’s end the story, not that we must. I made the changes and kept my mouth shut and did not, as far as I can remember, feel persecuted. For the record, I did not agree with the editor. The editor was acting from the values of a generation that had recently survived a war and before that a protracted depression. Leave my own politics aside, and put the editor’s right beside them. This was a matter of courtesy – you did not insult people in public, even if they were drooling blackguards who you personally saw mug the vicar – and it was a matter of fairness. Innocent until proven guilty and all that. Maybe fear of being offensive played some part in this, too.

But the editor was (slightly) wrong because, in the honest opinion of the guy calling the fictional shots – me – the archer/hero would not have softened his opinion; he was not that kind of guy, at least not as he was then interpreted, and so we were committing the itsy-tiny offense of not being true to the character. This is seldom considered a cardinal sin and I would not expect to be lynched for it.

We are reminded of an occasional confusion that occurs when a reader believes that what a character says is what the author is saying. Sometimes that’s the case, but not always. So, hey, could we just relax and enjoy the prose?

Oh, and remember to always work for excellent editors.

Dennis O’Neil: Ha Ha Ha

Here’s the plan. You’ll wait until the office is closed for the day and the lights are all out and then, possibly wearing a tool belt, you’ll sneak inside and remove the appliance from its place near the big chair and take it home and put it on the couch and sit next to it. Then you’ll tune in NBC’s new comedy, Powerless. (Did I mention that this will be on Thursday night?) You’ll turn on the laughing gas machine, the one that belongs to your dentist and place the mask over your nose and mouth. This is necessary, according to you, because you might not find the show funny and yet it’s supposed to make you laugh and if it doesn’t you’ll feel frustrated and to avoid this ugly feeling you can sniff the laughing gas and have yourself a good chuckle and maybe a gas-induced laugh is better than none at all.

Enough of that.

I know very little about Powerless, not much more than it’s about an insurance company that deals with the collateral damage that would inevitably accompany the damage superheroes cause while doing their superstuff. Not the worst premise I’ve ever encountered.

This is not new, this conflation of humor with superheroics.

A few weeks back, I mentioned Herbie the Fat Fury, who appeared in the American Comics Group titles, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, part of the Captain Marvel posse,  and The Inferior Five which, if memory serves, was about a quintet of costumed goofballs who did superheroish feats of the goofball variety. And on television there were Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific, whose live action adventures may have been inspired by Batman.

Ah, Batman. Saving the best for last, were we? Batman, of course, was a comic book crusader for years before he made his way to the tube. He had also appeared in two movie serials, in newspapers, and as an occasional guest star on the Superman radio series. So it was probably no great surprise that he’d pop into your living room sooner or later. But how he popped – that may have qualified as a surprise. This Batman was not merely a dark clad vigilante who prowled the city ever seeking to avenge his parents’ murder by assaulting crime wherever it was found – he was a dark-clad comedian who assaulted crime. Yep. Funny ha-ha kind of dude.

I won’t burden you with my opinions on how Batman’s comedy was achieved. Let’s just agree that is was achieved, for a while quite successfully. Then public taste moved on, leaving Batman to a protracted afterlife in rerun city. Quirky thing: Adults coming to the show for the first time tend to see it as what is was intended to be: funny. Kids, though, are more likely to enjoy it as action-adventure. I await explanations but not, I confess, on tenterhooks.

Meanwhile, we have a new show to sample.

Maybe we’re lucky.

Dennis O’Neil: Teen Angst

I must have encountered Archie Comics while I was still young and innocent before the brassy hell we knew as high school — and military high school at that – before I began my ten-year abstinence from reading comic books. I can’t remember a time when Archie and his pals and gals weren’t on my radar somewhere (though the blip was probably dim and small. One of those deals where I knew something but didn’t know I knew it.)

The Archie posse was one of a bunch of similar groups that were sprinkled throughout the media in the years immediately before and after the Second World War. But the genre was born decades earlier, in the 1920s when the younger set began to be identified as a consumer group with few bucks in their pockets. The fictional teens got a boost from a series of movies starring Mickey Rooney as the lovable Andy Hardy, and then came the comics featuring guys and gals with names like Candy, Binky, Corliss Archer, Henry Aldrich, Patsy Walker. True confession: I once, briefly contributed to the Patsy scene. Way more fun than high school.

These stories, which might have been mistaken for sitcoms on a dark night, featured slightly cartoonish but attractive adolescents romping their way through high school and related activities – dances, games – and having disagreements with both peer groups and authority figures These squabbles weren’t serious and did not seem likely to put the teens on the path to juvie. Detention was all they had to worry about.

They were no respecters of media boundaries, these scamps. Some had radio shows back when network broadcasts were major sources of light entertainment. and young master Aldrich appeared in a series of movies. Most perished when comics were attacked by the political and muckraking witch hunters of the 50s and early 60s.

But not Archie. He continued to appear wherever there was a decent comic book store from his war-era debut straight on through to the present. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he and his crew are on the tv. Yep, there they are in a weekly show titled Riverdale, Thursday evenings on the CW.

I could never identify with the comics’ Archie, who seem to have his friends, male and female alike, grafted to his hip. I was a loner (with a uniform). But Marifran was pretty much a typical teen who hung out with kids I didn’t know and did teenage things. (She also went on dates with me. I don’t think I wore my uniform.) The CW Archie doesn’t reflect my adolescence, which was to be expected, but it’s nothing like Marifran’, either.

This Riverdale is a series saturated in angst and gloom and the video Archie is involved in stuff the comics Archie would never have heard of, including an improper relationship with a teacher. Tch! So Riverdale’s world mirrors ours. It ain’t a barrel of laughs, but It’s well-enough done to merit another look. Maybe.

Dennis O’Neil: Bang or Whimper?

So last Friday, in lockstep, we all walked off the edge of the cliff and began what promises to be a long, long plunge. (Maybe you can feel the wind in your hair but I can’t, due to a scarcity of hair.) The big fall may end early and perhaps abruptly. Others will continue to fall until we stop. Don’t know when that’ll be, or how bad the jolt will be. Remember T.S. Eliot’s lines in his poem, The Hollow Men?

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

Step right up, ladeez an’ gennelmen, and place your bets What’ll it be, bang or whimper?

Hard call, isn’t it? Bang or whimper? Bang is coming on strong – all that carelessness with nuclear weapons and such, (What kid resists setting off the biggest firecracker on the block and what makes us think that all our leaders aren’t kids?) But my money’s on the whimper. We were recently informed last year was the warmest in history, warmer than the year before which was warmer than the year before that. Yep, three years in a row, each hotter than the last. A meteorological hat trick. Yay?

Ah, but Snarko of the Snarky Squad is saying, in between bites of his toenails, “How do you smartasses know what happened what happened before recorded history? How do you know that every year wasn’t warmer than the one before it back then?”

That darn Snarko! Is he a master of the lightning riposte or what? But never mind. Just know that we are allowed to ignore him, and so we shall.

Where were we? Plummeting, that’s where. So we really don’t know where we’re headed, how this journey will end. Maybe we should simply try to keep ourselves amused until the Big Bump? We read comics, don’t we? So a stack of comic books might entertain us – haven’ they always? – and benefit us further by distracting from thoughts we’d rather not be having.

And – final beneft! – it’s not likely that comic book stories will remind us of those nattering thoughts because you don’t find many apocalypses in the comics. A few, yes, but not many. Didn’t J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, have a whole planet yanked out from under him? And Superman and his cute cousin, Supergirl, also did hasty emigrations from a planet that was becoming space dust. (I will omit discussion of the host of other Kryptonians who somehow survived, some of them by taking refuge in a bottle.)

Anyway, if you’d like to boycott reality, comics might be your reading of choice. As for the other entertainments…just be careful how you spend your disposable income

We don’t want our amusements disturbing us. That’s real life’s job.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Ecclesiastes

 

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

— William Butler Yeats • Lapis Lazuli

Here we are, having our last visit before the big hokey pokey on the Potomac and I am being reminded of post-apocalyptic fiction. If you can’t guess why I’m suffering this brain scratch, maybe you can be excused.

Now, for those of you still with me, hey gang – let’s talk end of the world!

Time was when apocalypses were rare, if not nonexistent, on theater screens and – I’m taking a flyer here – utterly absent from video. Today, though, IMDB’s entry lists 50 films that qualify as post-apocalyptic and surely there are more on the way. Why the deluge?

I can think of only four movies that dealt with them when I was callow and skinny: The World The Flesh and the Devil, On The Beach, Fail Safe, and our black comedy masterwork, Dr. Strangelove. I paid good money to see all of them and I didn’t feel cheated.

A quick look at them, one by one: The World The Flesh And The Devil, released in 1959, has a radioactive dust cloud killing almost everyone on Earth. Harry Belafonte plays a mine engineer who was underground during the catastrophe. He meets two other survivors and events proceed to what I guess is a happy ending… or at least a hopeful one.

On the Beach, first widely seen in 1959, gives us a world devastated by nuclear weapons. Unhappy ending. Enough said.

And Dr. Strangelove: another nuclear war story, adapted from a much more conventional novel and released in 1964, best described as broad satire. I won’t go into detail here: Strangelove is unique and if you haven’t seen it, remedy that.

To conclude this probably incomplete catalog. Fail Safe. Plot very like Strangelove’s, minus the satire.

Three of the four entertainments under consideration carry strong anti-war messages and the fourth, the Belafonte flick, delivers the same warning a bit more obliquely.

This kind of plotting certainly has its uses, allowing writers to create situations for their heroes to have adventures in without worrying about those pesky facts, a boon print guys were enjoying before the movie guys got around to it. (It might also allow misanthropes jolly-dreams, but we’ll ignore that.)

I guess that the most socially useful element of the doomsayers is as modern incarnations of whoever wrote the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. I hereby paraphrase/translate: Everything’s hopeless and besides it sucks. The original is more elegant.

If you’d like to see how a really good science fiction writers handles this theme find a copy of Roger Zelazny’s short story “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.”

I should find a copy myself. Maybe reading it again will brace me for a post-hokey pokey America. Couldn’t hurt, anyway.

See you next week. Maybe.

Dennis O’Neil: Hunky Dory on the Potomac?

So this is the bardo, huh? Let’s look around… big Dick Sprang Batman print on the wall, lots of books, big repro of a Green Lantern/Green Arrow cover. Statuettes of comic book characters here and here, exercise gear, computer… You know, it looks a lot like my house, this bardo does.

Whoa! You, over there, perched on one of the Himalayas (can never tell the damn things apart) – yes you, the Tibetan dude, stop with the sneering, okay? I mean, how do you know that a bardo doesn’t look like my house? You ever seen a bardo? Has anyone seen a bardo and returned to report on it? No and no!

So keep your attitude to yourself!

Is that a hand I see raised? Okay, we have time to kill. (In fact, if we’re really inside a bardo, time may not exist.) You have a question?

What the heck is a bardo?

Where’d you learn to speak italics? Never mind. To address your question: I’ll give you a rough, back-of-the-envelope definition and you can resort to Google if you want more. According to Tibetan beliefs, a bardo is where your soul goes after it sheds its body and is not yet reincarnated in another. A region of waiting. Waiting for what? For whatever comes next.

(No more dumb questions, please.)

Bardo is one of my favorite tropes because it expresses situations in which we sometimes find ourselves. It’s a bit stronger than plain old “waiting” because, for me, it expresses not only waiting, but not knowing what you’re waiting for.

And doesn’t that just about say it all! I’d offer the proposition that, ever since November 7, most of us have been existing in a bardo state. Let’s agree, at least until I finish this sentence, we human Americas have lived through the worst case scenario. And?

Most everything in daily life is as-per-usual. But if we’re the kind of anachronisms who read newspapers or are the more common variety of carbon-based American life forms who get our news from television, we’re aware that things aren’t hunky dory on the Potomac. Those questionable appointments, that chumminess with Russia, that skipping of important meetings and ego-fraught tweets and belligerence toward China… Nothing has happened to give us hope that the situations won’t get worse after the inauguration when a huge lump of power lands in the lap of the guy in the red tie.

Meanwhile… hey, nice bardo we got here! But could we eliminate whatever’s tainting the air? It smells a lot like anxiety… and I don’t like it at all.

Dennis O’Neil: Let There Be White!

All right now, settle down. Here it is, already the new year and we haven’t even started yet. Started what? That’s just about the kind of question I’d expect from you, mister smarty pants!

We can begin with a gripe, follow with a premature digression and then maybe segue into a topic. Ready for the gripe? Here goes: Geez, a lot of stuff sucks!

But let me tell you about my early days in the writing dodge. When I was groping through the universe, certain of very little, a person or persons whose identity I’ve forgotten told me that clarity was of high importance. Or maybe even crucial. I believed him/her/them and conducted my professional life accordingly, and it seemed to me that the perpetrators of the novels and comic books and films and plays and short stories I was absorbing mostly did the same. (Poems? Maybe not so much. That Ezra Pound can be pretty rough going.) Murkiness was, by and large, not considered a virtue.

But murkiness – lack of clarity – comes in diverse forms. There’s plain old bad sentences and bad plotting and bad acting and unfocused photography and bad editing and inconsistency and showing off at the audience’s expense – for example, sticking in obscure allusions or foreign phrases. And let’s not forget the obvious, bad printing. We’ll end our incomplete catalogue with this: not giving the audience what it needs to understand the action.

Let’s glance, sideways, at some items that really scorch my grits.

  • Credits, titles and production info – words on the screen – that use white or light colored lettering against white or light background.
  • Credits and so forth that don’t remain visible long enough to be read.
  • Actors who mumble lines
  • Credits shrunk so small, usually to accommodate some kind of advertising, that they can’t be read.

Credits that don’t stop running until the show’s a quarter over. Okay, maybe that one’s more mine than yours. I want the damn things shown and then I want to forget about them instead of perching on the edge of my seat waiting to find out who directed the thing

The assumption on the part of the creative folk that everyone in the audience knows the backstory and the characters as well as they do and so that info doesn’t need to be established on later appearances. (A novelist friend once said that every important element of a novel should be established three times in three different contexts. Sound advice. I wish I followed it.) This is especially pertinent these days when here’s a lot of long-form drama happening on television. And by the way: the sins I’ve just mentioned aren’t are seldom committed by the creators of these shows, though maybe they could work on the credits a bit.)

Okay, does that end the griping? Not likely. But it does end the griping for now. Stay braced for further bitchery in the future. We can assume there will be some.

Dennis O’Neil: Wordy Rappinghood

I can’t say that the year currently limping toward the exit was bad for us. Not al all.  Some unexpected bounty, a great weekend in Canada, an award from a local arts group, not even one tiny heart attack and if any kidney stones were present they didn’t jump up and holler.

No power outages either and no car crashes – though as I type this there are six days before auld lang syne, so maybe I’m being prematurely optimistic.

A few hours ago, our annual Boxing Day lunch with the Pisanis. Some good stuff on the television set. Nothing to frown at in any of that.

Yeah, the year was pretty good for the O’Neils.

The planet wasn’t so lucky.

See you next week for 2017.

Dennis O’Neil: Santa

Let us forego our consideration of the green unicorn problem and, obeying the dictates of the season, direct our attention to that jolly old elf, Santa Claus.

First, we’ll follow that which is not exactly required but is nonetheless highly recommended and seek to link the elf to comic books, this allegedly being a column devoted to the aforementioned magazines.

So: is Santa a comics character?

Yes and no. Research indicates that he and his cohort of elves and reindeer have never been awarded their own regular title. You could never find, tucked into your Christmas stocking, something like “The Adventures of Santa Claus” or if the comic was published by Disney, “Santa’s Funnies and Stories” or, if it appeared in the 60s and bore a Marvel colophon, maybe “The Stupendous Santa.” Santa has made – I’m taking a shot in the dark here – tens of thousands of comics guest appearances; I may have written a couple-three myself. But he has never been a regular at a comics shop near you. It’s almost as though he didn’t…exist?

And thus, finished with squirming, we come to it and dare ask: Is Santa real?  (You might consider sending the children out of the room.)

Again, and please forgive me: Yes and no.

Begin with yes. There is a mythic/fictive entity whose existence was inspired by legendary folk who were probably real humans and whose lore has been augmented by uncounted artists, writers, actors, maybe dancers… anyway, a lot of creative folk. The first of these was an educated New Yorker who lived in what is now Chelsea, in lower Manhattan (and later in Newport) named Clement Clark Moore. He wrote what he titled A Visit From St. Nicholas, never intending it to be published. But it was, in 1823, by The New York Sentinel and it’s been with us ever since. (Some have disputed Moore’s authorship, but let’s not go there.)

To continue: Are you certain you’ve shooed away the young’uns? Then let’s dare to face the no. So: no, there has never been an actual living human with sorrows, joys, aches and pains, a genome – none of that baggage. He was fiction, just like Spider-Man or John Galt or Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. But that’s not what many of us tell children. We say Santa is real and brings gifts and eats cookies and drinks the milk if we leave snacks out for him. We lie. Tsk

But for much of my life, I thought that the Santa fib was essentially harmless. I’ve changed my mind. What do we gain by teaching kids that adults perpetrate senseless lies that continue for years? That adults, and especially authority figures, are not to be trusted? That the world is full of uncertainty and that the people you love will, just for the heck of it, lie their asses off?

Maybe our final answer is yes Let the urchins learn to be careful and cynical and suspicious. Because look at the world we’re handing them.

Ho ho ho.