Somewhere in the curly-edged annals of ComicMix – surely such annals must exist! – there must exist a piece I wrote…well, ya know, I’m not really sure when, exactly, I wrote it. A while ago, okay? My subject, or what I’ll assume was a crisp fall day, was how Labor Day has, gradually, over time, assumed the weight and character of what I think of as a real holiday – one that exists because it fulfills a need.
Christmas is a good example: light and fire and feasting combine to celebrate the return of the light after winter’s long gloom. Similarly, Easter: the return of planting season. Thanksgiving and the various fall harvest festivals: cutting and storing enough foodstuff to see the community through the forthcoming cold. All of these occasions and more are tied to nature’s rhythms and marked by change.
So how does Labor Day fit into all this? Well. A U.S. President named Grover Cleveland decided that we as a nation ought to take notice of the contributions of the American working men the blue-collar Joes who created “the new world.” First Monday in September. From now on – Labor Day!” Thus declareth the Prez!
The Prez’s timing was good. Early September: the kids who worked on farms where pretty much done with the summer’s chores. Any family that could afford vacations had probably taken them by the time the leaves began to change. And there were the Big Holidays to brace for. (Where the hell did we store those tree lights?)
Those of us who got graduation documents – that’d be most of us – has busy Septembers. New classes and, ergo, new schoolmates, some of whom just might be cute. New teachers. New clothes. New sports. Streets spangled with decorations. Maybe some sliding and skating and all that other stuff.
And oh, let me not forget the television and the movies – the really honkin’ big films that seem to materialize in the hottest of summer and coldest of winter. Last year, the one we anticipated was Batman vs Superman and when I saw the name “Bill Finger” early in the credits, I thought this won’t be a complete waste of time. I’ll get some satisfaction from seeing Bill finally, after decades, get some of the credit due him. Then I watched the film.
This fall, I guess the Big Flick is Justice League. The story would seem to have some of the same narrative problems that beset Batman vs Superman. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, there’s some superhero stuff debuting/returning to the nation’s flat screened living room pals and that should suffice to keep us geeks from having withdrawal woes.
Chic Young. Al Capp. Jimmy Hatlo. Carl Anderson. Ernie Bushmiller. Alex Raymond. Roy Crane. Those are some names I remember, some 70 years later, with no help from Google, from the “funny side” of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the newspaper that landed, rolled and bound with wire, on the front lawn of the four family flat where we lived until I was 10 or 11. By then I was aware that there was another newspaper, The Star-Times, the one that the O’Neils didn’t read, with its own funnyside and its own names and I may have even known some, but with the exception of Chester Gould, I seem to have forgotten these, maybe because I didn’t see them every day.
Somewhere in early grade school – ah, Sister Helen, what became of you? – I must have realized, probably gradually, that these names had something to do with the comic strips they were attached to and from there it would have been an easy step to realizing that the people these names belonged to somehow made the comic strips. And was I gobsmacked? (Saul on the road to Tarsus! Archimedes in the bath! Newton bonked by the apple!)
Not likely. My awareness that the comics were the product of human effort probably materialized slowly, over time. Somewhere in those developmental years, I must have come to similar awareness about the radio shows that occupied my late weekday afternoons and the cowboy pictures I saw on Friday nights at the Pauline Theater. (And boy! It sure took at lot more people to make a cowboy picture than a comic strip!)
Then there were the comic books. On Sunday morning, after Mass, Dad bought a quart of milk for the family and a comic book for little Denny. Later on in life, that scamp Denny learned to trade those comics with other kids’ comics and so some summer afternoons were absorbed by superhero adventures and funny animal hijinks.
Is something missing here?
The names. There must have been bylines and art credits in the comics, now and then, here and there, but I either didn’t register them or did notice them but quickly lost them to memory. Then comics vanished from my world and when they reappeared, more than a decade later, I did become aware of creators’ names, among them Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who got credit for Superman, and in the Batman comics, Bob Kane. Just “Bob Kane.”
Something still missing?
In the comics business, it’s been a fairly open secret for decades that Mr. Kane, an artist, worked with a writer named Bill Finger. But only Mr. Kane’s name appeared on Batman comics and movies and novels and television shows and lunch boxes…The reasons are legal and a tiny bit complicated and we won’t go into them here. But we have good news! From now on, Bill Finger’s name will appear on Batman stuff. This is not accident. For years, Bill’s granddaughter, Athena Finger, and her sister, Alephia Mariotto, have been struggling to get some kind of justice for Bill and now I suggest you take note of the latest film incarnation of Batman, titled, catchily, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. You’ll see in the early credits this information: Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.
As we near the debut of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Sepia Tones my mind races towards those pure gems of the Dark Knight that already exist in the ether of Animatia. Animatia is, of course, the fictitious country where all cartoons come from. Paul Dini is the dictator there – as he should be – and he rules with a dynamically drawn fist. And here, on this wonderful island, sit the tomes that built a generation of Bat-fans. Some (me) would say these tomes were truly the best generation of adaptations and explorations of Batman. I’d like to pontificate, ruminate, and extrapolate to you those episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (and The New Batman Adventures) that truly defined a cartoon legacy.
1 and 2. Two-Face (Parts 1 and 2)
Of all the designs Bruce Timm would bring to light for the Dark Night, it was Two-Face who took the prize in my mind for the most striking. Up to that point I personally had no knowledge of Harvey Dent. Being introduced to him a mere five episodes earlier, I’d figured the Gotham DA to be the fastidious order in Bruce Wayne’s reenactment of Law & Order. With this chilling origin story though, Alan Burnett and Randy Rogel show a deeply scarred man come to terms with is inner demons made flesh. The fact that Batman was just a step or two behind the explosion that would lose him a great friend to villainy was the kind of mature punch I wasn’t expecting in a children’s program. Keep that in mind as we continue our journey.
Feat of Clay (Part 2)
Origin stories were B:TAS‘s most potent products of the series. While I could hit on so many points already listed with Two Face, here, it’s really the ending sequence of the second half of Clayface’s debut that earns it a spot on my all-time top ten. As Matt Hagen is confronted with a bank of TV’s mocking his present malleable form with the visage of a career’s worth of characters, he can no longer hold a single form. The muscle memory of his Clayface form jerks and contorts Hagen into a gloppy nightmare as a tenderized Batman seeks solace in the back of the bay. With no other option to stop the cacophony, Clayface electrocutes himself into unconsciousness – but not before he snarks to Batman that he would have killed for a death scene like the one he just performed. Natch.
Almost Got ‘Im
Quentin Tarantino, eat your heart out! The key line here “And then I threw a rock at ‘im!”… “It was a big rock.”
House and Garden
Simply put, if you don’t find yourself disturbed at Poison Ivy’s children mutating into plant monsters, then there’s just no hope for you. Again we’re presented with a concept no kids’ cartoon would touch prior, or frankly, afterwards. Was it all in service to megalomaniac super-villainy? Sure. But when you see the carefully placed seeds of doubt – that Ivy might have actually wanted normalcy at some point in her prior life – then you know that behind the ass-kickery is an artful commentary on the biological desire to procreate.
While Mark Hamill’s Joker is the Joker of pop culture (in my opinion), it was the creation of Harley Quinn that deserves the recognition on my list. Here, amidst some obviously campy comedy, comes a deeper heart and message. That the broken Dr. Quinzelle still lingers somewhere beneath the makeup and madness. And while Mad Love would likely steal a spot on anyone else’s list, it’s the quick decent into villainy here that earns the episode my love. Harley truly tried to reform. But the universe had other plans.
Mr. Freeze is forced to turn Walt Disney into an immortal life himself. OK, it’s not actually Disney, but… yeah. The final image of Grant Walker frozen on the ocean floor for eternity is frozen in my mind for the sheer ironic terror it invokes.
I think it should be clear: most of my favorite moments from the show all curtail towards the mature. Such is life. Here, Robin (Tim Drake, now), is duped into saving a little girl afraid of her evil father. The dad? Clayface. The daughter? Just an extension of malleable mud, played perfectly by the former actor. Robin? Never the same again.
Legends of the Dark Knight
Look, I know I put another anthology on this list, but c’mon. Dini and his crew were able to capture the essence of Frank Miller, Dick Sprang, and Bill Finger in 22 minutes. That’s not just a novel approach to presentation. That’s a master class in adaptation.
Perchance to Dream
Laren Bright, Michael Reaves, and Joe R. Lansdale deserve the highest kudos. We drop into the episode in medias res (yet another mature presentation choice, for kids cartoon show). Things feel off. Bruce Wayne’s life isn’t as it should be. He’s happily in a romantic relationship. But the words in the paper are illegible. Confused, he stares out to the skyline. And Batman swings past him. The tension reaches a boiling point. And then, Thomas Wayne gently offers his hand to his adult son, Bruce, in comfort. The needle scratches on the record of the young minds watching. The Mad Hatter has captured the actual Batman in a dream machine, whilst he pilfers and plunders Gotham City. Before the dream can end (with Bruce Wayne pitching himself into oblivion), the Hatter appears. “I was willing to give you any life you wanted… Just so you’d stay out of mine!” Consider my mind blown, and my heart stolen for an amazing moment captured in celluloid.
* Please note: I figured I should finally title my article with a super link-baity trap like this to lure the unsuspecting and angry public to my musings. Suffice to say the list above represents just my opinion. If you don’t share that opinion, clearly, you are wrong and you should feel ashamed that you’d dare disagree with me.
I hate being bored, so over the years I’ve managed to shorten my attention span to the point when the good stuff runs out, so do I. Therefore, from time to time I have a little to say about a lot of things. For example:
DC / Warner Bros finally gave credit where credit has long been due: appending Bill Finger’s name to Bob Kane’s as the men who made Batman a Day-One success. It is marvelously ironic that the first time I’d seen the “Created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger” line was on Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken DC Comics Special 3: Magical Friendship, which, for the record, I enjoyed – certainly a lot more than the second one. Hawkman vs Robot Chicken? Priceless. Anyway, Bill’s name is supposed to be deployed in similar fashion on all future Batman stuff, including their electronic comics (left). It’s about time. And lawyers. And egos.
I’m looking forward to Marvel’s upcoming Red Wolf series, even though it clearly indulges in usually needless future-continuity winks such as Sheriff Steve Rogers and Mayor Wilson Fisk. Nonetheless, I’ve always been amused to see the standard Marvel heroic fantasy from the standpoint of earlier times – 1872, in this case, or World War I or whathaveyou. Our ComicMix pal John Ostrander has written more than a few of these for Marvel and they always conveyed a sense of fun. Same thing with Howard Chaykin. Red Wolf might be a little-remembered Marvel character – as was the Phantom Eagle – and I have no doubt there likely will be some sort of SHIELD reference. OK, that’s part of the fabric of the Marvel Comics Universe and sometimes it’s difficult to by-pass the opportunity to get cute. If this new series is half as much fun as Skottie Young’s variant cover (right), it’ll be completely worthwhile.
Hey, Supergirl teevee producers! If you actually say the word “Superman” on your television show, just who is going to sue you? Warner Bros? Well, actually, I know one producer who wound up being sued by his own company, so I shouldn’t be quite so sarcastic. But, hell, I am who I am. After a while going so far out of your way to not say “Superman” takes the viewer out the story. If you don’t want to say Superman, you shouldn’t be allowed to use the Big Red S. It was very conspicuous by its absence. And annoying.
On the other hand, I’m surprised I’m enjoying Gotham so much this season. I was ambivalent about it after the end of the first season, but two weeks into this season ComicMix columnist Marc Alan Fishman said I should check it out. He was right: the show improved significantly, particularly with respect to Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon. Of course, the addition of Michael Chiklis to the cast as Gordon’s boss also added to the fun. The story itself ebbs and flows and is too often carried by bravura performances by Chiklis, Sean Pertwee and Robin Lord Taylor – not to mention Carol Kane, who is a national treasure. But it’s fun.
Ed Catto did a wonderful tribute to Murphy Anderson in this space a few days ago, and I second each of his statements. I’d like to bring to your attention his work on a different piece of our modern history. The very first issue of Ms. Magazine featured a story abut Wonder Woman, a worthy idea for the start of America’s first mass-market feminist magazine. The cover featured one of the best Wonder Woman pieces I’ve seen. This cover (left) was penciled and inked by my old friend, Murphy Anderson. Of course we will miss him, and of course he left us with a lifetime of wonderful artwork. A true master of our medium.