Dennis Joseph “Denny” O’Neil, the writer and editor who redefined the Batman, the Joker, Green Arrow, the Shadow, and the Question for the modern era; created or co-created R’as al Ghul, OPtimus Prime, Azrael, Leslie Tompkins, Madame Web, Richard Dragon, and Lady Shiva; and was a beloved contributor to ComicMix, has passed away at the age of 81.
He started his career in comics almost by accident, when Roy Thomas suggested that O’Neil take the Marvel writer’s test, which involved adding dialogue to a wordless four-page excerpt of a Fantastic Four comic. O’Neil’s entry resulted in Lee offering O’Neil a job. O’Neil had never considered writing for comics, and later said he’d done the test “kind of as a joke. I had a couple of hours on a Tuesday afternoon, so instead of doing crossword puzzles, I did the writer’s test.” He started with Millie The Model and Patsy Walker, but soon found himself writing Doctor Strange and Daredevil. He also started freelancing for Charlton Comics under the name Sergius O’Shaughnessy, and when editor Dick Giordano went over to DC Comics he brought Denny along, where he wrote the Creeper, Wonder Woman, Justice League of America, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, Batman, Superman, and the revivals of the Shadow, the Avenger, and Captain Marvel, now retitled to Shazam!
In the 80’s, he returned to Marvel for a spell, where he wrote Iron Man and put Jim Rhodes into the suit of armor, contributed to the creation of the Transformers, and edited Frank Miller on his two runs of Daredevil as well as writing the issues in between them, among many other things.
He returned to DC in 1986 to become the group editor of the Batman titles, as well as write The Question.
He didn’t limit his writing to comics, also writing at various times for Coronet, Show, Gentleman’s Quarterly, Ono, the Village Voice, News Front, Amazing Stories, High Times, Viva, Penthouse, Publisher’s Weekly, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Fantastic, Generation One, Fantasy and Science Fiction,Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock, and Haunt of Horror; as well as television, both live-action (Superboy, Logan’s Run) and animated (Batman: The Animated Series); and various novels, including the exemplary Helltown.
He was widely honored by fans and pros alike, including Shazam Awards for Best Continuing Feature for Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Best Individual Story for “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight” in Green Lantern #76 (with Neal Adams), for Best Writer (Dramatic Division) in 1970 for Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, and other titles, and Best Individual Story for “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” in Green Lantern #85 (with Neal Adams) in 1971. He also won the Comics Buyer’s Guide Award for Favorite Editor in 1986, 1988, 1989, and 1996; a Goethe Award in 1971 for “Favorite Pro Writer” and was a nominee for the same award in 1973, received an Inkpot Award in 1981, and won a Haxtur Award in 1998.
He gave of his time to help teach the next generation of comics creators, teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, writing The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, and writing for ComicMix. He also sat on the board of directors of the charity The Hero Initiative, an organization devoted to helping comic creators in need, and served on its Disbursement Committee.
He was married to the lovely former Marifran McFarland, who passed away in 2017. He is survived by his son, Lawrence, and the industry which he forever changed.
Taking our cue from him, our Recommended Reading List for today is Denny’s columns. We’ll miss him.
Our friend Marifran O’Neil died yesterday morning.
A teacher in Brooklyn NY, Maryland, Illinois and her native St. Louis Missouri, Marifran was the wife of writer / editor and ComicMix columnist Denny O’Neil, whose column normally runs in this space at this time.
Born February 10, 1940, Marifran and Denny were childhood sweethearts who became separated by time and distance. They reconnected in the 1990s and were married in 2009; a true story of love and romance. I know first-hand; Denny and Marifran got back together when Denny and I were sharing an office at DC Comics at the time. Upon reuniting with Marifran, Denny immediately morphed into a man completely and hopelessly in love.
She had that impact not only on Denny but on all of us. A charming person and a wonderful conversationalist, I looked forward to seeing her at various comics conventions and social gatherings, including Martha Thomases’ legendary Hanukkah donut party, the annual salon of New York comics people. Marifran’s presence made each meeting an event.
Marifran had two daughters, Meg and Beth, who live and work in Portland and Nevada respectively.
Trying to avoid an overused meme is impossible: Marifran truly was a special and unique person, and we will miss her greatly.
I’ve been writing about several of the impressive Geek Culture entrepreneurs I met at this year’s New York Comic-Con, but the real-life Gotham City certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on these passionate creators who are making it happen.
The Buffalo Comic-Con is run by Emil Novak and his team. They’re also the folks behind Buffalo’s long-lived comic shop, Queen City Bookstore. It’s a great shop full of treasures, staffed by people who love both comics and customer service.
I was invited to be a panelist at their convention a few weeks back. As we were wrapping up our panel, the next folks were setting up and I realized that was the panel I wanted to see. Keith Larsen and Jackie Zbuska are creative entrepreneurs and they are passionate about their Charlton Comics documentary.
Ed Catto:This project seems like a lot of fun! How’d it all start?
Keith Larsen & Jackie Zbuska: So what’s our origin story? It’s not spectacular, or even exciting. Tired feet and washing dishes. We were at the 2014 ComiCONN in Bridgeport, CT. It was an awesome venue with lots to do, but after a few hours, we really needed a break off. Keith noticed a ticker ribbon message advertising a panel featuring Denny O’Neil, Bob Layton, and Paul Kupperberg. Perfect! Comic book legends and our excuse to sit!
We snuck into the panel room as Paul took the stage and announced the panel topic: Charlton Comics! Huh…what? Charlton? Didn’t they go away like, 30 years ago? “And, what the heck is a Charlton? One of those candies you put in the freezer…?”
What about Batman, Denny? What about Iron Man, Bob? Why did you kill Archie, Paul? Charlton?!?!? But, what the heck, we’re nerds who like comics, and the room is pretty packed, so let’s give it 10 minutes and then get back to walking the floor. The whole panel included Paul Kupperberg, Bob Layton, Denny O’Neil, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Frank McLaughlin. After maybe two minutes, we moved from the back of the room to the second row. By the end of the hour, we were hooked. These guys had some hilarious stories!
Cut to the next morning: Keith is doing dishes thinking about the Charlton panel… wait a minute!!!! Why not do a documentary about Charlton! Keith called Jackie with the idea. To get things going, Keith would call Mitch Hallock, who produces TerrifiCon. Mitch knew some of the guys from Charlton, so maybe he could help us track them down! Jackie’s response: “Nope, I’ll be there in 20 minutes. We’re driving back down to the con and cold pitching these guys.” The guys obviously said ‘Yes’ to the pitched idea. Since then, we’ve expanded the team, done more interviews, and have been hitting the books to crack the whole saga wide open.
EC:Now, can you remind me how Charlton as a company started?
KL & JZ: The Comics division began only out of the necessity to save money. The Charlton factory was an all-in-one publishing establishment that made their money off Music magazines – like Hit Parader – and crossword puzzle books. They found that it was more cost effective to run the printing presses overnight – and thus Charlton Comics was born!
Oh yeah, and apparently, the idea of Charlton proper was hatched from two guys who met in jail. Weird, right?!?
EC:Did you have a love of Charlton before undertaking this project?
KL & JZ: HAHA. NoooooNoNoNo. As we mentioned above Jackie had never heard of it and Keith has a slight recognition once he saw the bullseye logo, but that’s about as familiar as we got. We take our fair share of social media trolling for it, but as far as we are concerned we see it as a good thing. Approaching the project as filmmakers first and comic book fans second, gives us a fresh and unique perspective on the story. Had we been big Charlton fans, we may have told the tale with a bias or fan perspective. Not knowing anything about it lets us take a clean and honest approach to making the movie.
EC:I’m excited to hear about some of the fans you’ve met along the way. What is the typical Charlton fan like? What are the atypical Charlton fans like?
KL & JZ: Funny enough, the die-hards we encounter are punk rockers from the hey-days of CBGBs. Our one atypical fan is truly unique. He’s a Generation Z 16-year old who’s got a substantial Charlton collection. He’s also a student of the silver age of comics in general. We’d say that his knowledge of the genre rivals that of any adult comic book historian we’ve spoken to. We interviewed him for the movie and we talk to him regularly as he finds Charlton gems at flea markets, tag sales and conventions all over the Northeast.
EC:It seems like you have been making the rounds on the comic-con circuit. What’s that been like?
KL & JZ: We’re always surprised to meet new Charlton fans at every one of the stops we make. It’s a unique community of people and happy that our project is exciting to them. It charges us up to know that people are finding out about this movie and supporting us. It’s very flattering that true Charlton fans are trusting us to handle telling this story about something that they cherish so much.
EC:Several Professionals have a spot in their hearts for Charlton. Who carries the torch for Charlton these days?
KL & JZ: Well, a super-fan named Fester Faceplant started a Facebook fan page and set up an online Charlton reading library of digitized Charlton books for fans to read. From there, it ballooned into a full-blown revival in the form of Charlton Neo Media spearheaded by Paul Kupperberg, Mort Todd, Roger McKenzie, Joe Staton and Nick Cuti amongst others. They’re first retail issue of “Charlton Arrow Vol 2” hit stands in October 4th of this year!
EC: I’m sure you’ve learned some surprises in your research. What can you share with us now?
KL & JZ: Hmmm, if we tell you, then we’d have to kill you! Hahahaha.
What we can share is that most of the lore of Charlton that exists online is far from the truth. It really lends an extra cutting edge to what our movie will show – the real story behind Charlton Comics – and trust us, life is stranger than fiction.
EC:After all this – What was your favorite Charlton Comic originally and what’s your favorite one now?
Keith Larsen: My first taste of some “real” Charlton was from a coveted gift I received from our new pal Joe Staton the day we interviewed him for the movie. He gave me a collected edition of E-Man published by First Comics. That was my favorite until I was able to read every Question back-up story in Blue Beetle comics from a digital collection we purchased on eBay. But Joe’s book is still awesome!
Jackie Zbuska: I instantly gravitated toward their expansive collection of horror titles, which despite the Comics Code, are subversively graphic. I have a soft spot for Gorgo stories, but my true favorite is John Byrne’s Rog-2000. He was in backup stories in some of the E-Man comics.
EC: What’s the timing of the project and how can fans help?
KL & JZ: Honestly, we were hoping for the project to be finished by the end of 2017, but funding dictates how fast we can work. We had financial help via crowd funding, but the money has run out. Unfortunately, with something as unheard of as Charlton Comics with as niche a fan base as it has, it hasn’t allowed us the ability to break into the sphere of pop culture awareness. So, in the case of crowd-funding, our reach has been limited to the marketplace of serious comic book fans or collectors. We’re hoping that our future efforts for raising funds will make strides into appealing to that larger audience potential. Any ideas are welcomed!
Detective Comics is the longest running American comic book series. It was so important to the publisher, an outfit called National Periodical Publications, that one day they officially changed their name to reflect comic’s initials. They became DC Comics. Oh, sure, Detective Comics Comics doesn’t make sense, but let’s not split hairs and just chalk it all up to simpler times.
I’ve been reading Detective Comics for as long as I’ve been reading. Batman was the lead character since #27, 1939, and in the early days I admit I’d often choose the latest issue of Batman – with that big Batman logo – instead of the latest Detective Comics.
But then, right about the time that I was actively buying and reading comics on my own with minimal parental supervision, Detective Comics shifted direction. Batman’s superhero adventures morphed into detective and mystery stories. Many stories embraced a whodunit feel. And as an adolescent who was trying to leave behind the camp of the Batman TV series, this version seemed in synch with I wanted at the time.
Actually, Detective Comics would have many incarnations over the years. For a while it became “The Batman Family” and offered a variety of adventures of Bat-characters and detectives. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, helped initially by Walter Simonson, created one of the most definitive versions of a mysterious yet well-rounded Batman in a 70s run of Detective Comics. And for a while in the 80s, the plotlines of Detective Comics were intertwining with the Batman title, like comic double helix/DNA strands, to create a twice-monthly ongoing soap opera style narrative.
Surprisingly, I’m really enjoying the current Detective Comics series that’s part of DC’s Rebirth. Like so many TV dramas, it’s about a team of people working together in the cause of justice. In his book The Caped Crusade and the Rise of Nerd Culture, author Glen Weldon made the point that Batman always starts by being a loner and eventually transforms to a person surrounded by a group or family. That’s definitely the case here.
Each issue is adorned with a classic Detective Comics logo and the stories are full of lush, detailed art that often showcases smooth and confident inking.
One would think a traditionalist like me wouldn’t enjoy a Batman Team book, but somehow it all works.
But the other day, I ended up enjoying an old treasure. I happened across my ragged copy of Detective Comics #414, 1972. It’s a wonderful comic for so many reasons. I won’t say, “they don’t make them like that anymore,” but… they don’t.
The powerful Neal Adams cover creates a stunning sense of urgency. It might seem odd that a lighthouse is causing Batman to burst into flames while a ghostly specter angrily lords over it all – but it sure does look great.
From the vantage point of today, I’m especially impressed that the paste-up person in the production department tried to minimize the logo with a window-like effect. I understand that it’s necessary, but the trade dress just seems out of place on this stunning illustration
The lead story stars Batman. It’s called “Legend of the Key Hook Lighthouse,” and starts off in a unique way – with a poem.
“One of the pleasures in working for editors like Julie Schwartz was that he’d allow his writers to stray from the beaten path, do wacky stuff like open on a poem,” writer Denny O’Neil reflected. “I remember very few details, but I do recall enjoying the writing of the story.”
The pencils for this page, by the often under-rated Irv Novick, are inked in a clever olde tyme/Gibson Girl style by Dick Giordano. The unorthodox inking visually reinforces the poem in this unique opening sequence.
The action starts in earnest on the second page. There we first see Batman, lurking in rafters of a Florida bar. He’s been tracking a planned arms sale and is just about ready to pounce.
The villain is the forgettable General Ruizo. He was a kind of a one-hit wonder, but without the “hit” part. The character who really steals the show is Loosy. She’s a faded beauty with a sordid past and a lifetime of regrets. She’s the type of character that you seldom see in the comics, and her tale of redemption, and Batman’s eventual respect for her, is heartfelt, natural and enduring.
To O’Neil’s credit, Loosy is the type of character that you remember for years. I’ve remembered her for about 45 years.
Batgirl and her detective boyfriend, Jason Bard, star in the second story, “Invitation to Murder.” The Frank Robbins, a fantastic artist, wrote this mystery. Longtime comics veteran Don Heck supplied the art. One might reflect on the inky similarities of Robbins’ and Heck’s art styles, but Heck’s art on this particular effort seems rushed and uninspired.
Still… extra points go to Babs (Batgirl) Gordon for one of the quickest costume changes – and the reverse change back into civilian clothes – in comic book history. In this adventure, she seems to transform in those little white gutters between the panels!
This was the first issue of Detective Comics that had jumped to the then-overwhelming price of 25 cents. In order to compensate drastic price hike, several additional stories were added. But even so, Carmine Infantino implored fans to listen to the publisher’s reasoning for the price increase. “Let’s rap,” he asked in the half-page editorial notice. He explained that they would be adding pages added to compensate for increased price. “Not just ordinary pages,” he promises, “but specially selected stories that we were planning for special time…and that time is now!’
These special pages, in this particular comic, included two reprint stories. One story is a Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino mystery thriller, where the actor who plays the lead in a TV show called Mark Gordon, Private Eye is whisked to Venus. They needed the help of real detective and thought the TV broadcasts were a documentary. This premise would be repeated many times over the years, most notably in the faux-Star Trek movie: Galaxy Quest.
It’s notable that the Venusians seem to look just like the Martians of the DC mythology. They are both tall green beings with blue capes topped off by oversized “opera style” collars. But who knows, maybe this was all a prank courtesy of J’Onn J’Onzz.
You may recall that J’Onn J’Onzz, The Martian Manhunter, was also a Detective Comics alumnus, so perhaps it was fitting. It all comes full circle, as J’Onn J’Onzz is now on TV each week in the Supergirl series.
(I still can’t believe that he’s on TV every week.)
The other reprint, a detective story called “The Australian Code Mystery,” is a real treat. Alex Toth’s art is masterful, creative and economical. David Vern wrote the story, and Mike Gold had some interesting insights about him:
Given my background in the youth social services field, at DC Comics I often was the go-to guy when somebody wanted to get a youth culture reference right. One day in, I believe, 1977, I was in my office pontificating on the subject of the availability of “pure” THC (tetrahydrocannabinol; the psychoactive part of marijuana). Lots of kids thought that various street drugs actually were THC, and I pointed out that THC per se wasn’t readily available outside of a laboratory that isn’t in the United States. I was asked about “angel dust,” which, in those days, often was sold as THC. In fact, angel dust usually was phencyclidine, a.k.a. PCP. As I said the word “phencyclidine” Dave Vern was visiting the office next to mine. He came running in to my area.
“Phencyclidine?” Dave asked. “PCP?” “Yeah,” I responded. “Angel dust.” Dave went into an excited and unending rant. “Great stuff! Powerful hallucinations! Makes a man out of you!”
“Well, sure, if you don’t mind the delusions and risk of seizure,” I replied, trying to be humorous.
“Of course it does! Why else use the stuff?”
“Because that’s the shit they inject into large simians in the last reel of ape movies!” I pointed out.
“Damn right it is,” Dave responded. He was about 53 at the time, and in those days serious, knowledgeable dopers did not look like Dave Vern, who appeared as though he might fill in for Principal Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. After Dave returned to his chores, one of the folks in my office said, “What would Batman say?” I think a better question would involve one of his best-known co-creations: What would Deadshot say?
Yes, David Vern, later called David V. Reed, was responsible for many important elements of Bat-Mythology. In addition to co-creating Deadshot, he also revamped the Batplane and reintroduced The Joker and Two-Face. Vern wrote “The Joker’s Utility Belt,” which would be adapted as memorable episodes of the 1960s Batman TV series. Two of his Batman stories, “Ride Bat-Hombre, Ride!” (drawn by Dick Sprang and Charles Paris) and “The Last Batman Story–?” (drawn by Walt Simonson and Dick Giordano) are among my personal favorites.
The back cover ad, announcing the short-lived Hot Birds toy, is just glorious! I imagine that the folks at Mattel were asking, “How can we extend the Hot Wheels brand?” Whoever raised their hand in that meeting and suggested, “What if we make them airplanes?” would have been regarded as a genius in my neighborhood. My brother Colin and I, aided by our neighborhood gang, instantly embarked on a mission to collect all the Hot Birds die-cast planes.
There were only six Hot Birds produced. Upon reflection, that’s probably a good thing.
But hey, that’s enough nostalgia! I’m looking forward to the next issue of Detective Comics. And kudos to all the talented creative types who take a magazine that’s been published since 1939 and making it seem so fresh and new!
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For more of my Bat-writing, be sure to look for The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide no.46 for my Legends of the Dark Knight essay. It’s on sale this summer. You just won’t be able to miss Jim Steranko’s Bat-Cover.
Hey girl we’ve got to get out of this place, there’s got to be something better than this
I need you, but I hate to see you this way. If I were Superman then we’d fly away.
I’d really like to change the world and save it from the mess it’s in,
I’m too weak, I’m so thin, I’d like to fly but I can’t even swim
Ray Davies, (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman
Several years ago, I read a poll that asked if we could have any one superpower, which one would we have? Unsurprisingly, the ability to fly won hands down.
Never mind the “fact” that super-speed would be the most powerful super-power. Think about it. If we could travel as fast as The Flash, we could prevent a lot of bad stuff from happening, put out fires, save kittens from trees, and pretty much cover the entire second reel of Superman – The Movie. But, no, we want to fly!
In certain circles, such as ComicMix staff meetings, it is well-known that I do not like to fly in airplanes out of airports. It’s not that I don’t like to fly per se – I’ve jumped out of airplanes for sport until my daughter and my chiropractor and my surgeon told me to stop. I just don’t like being treated like shit, and I’ve already had my share of physical encounters with the Chicago police, thank you (there are better ways to fly united than on United). But the fantasy of flying sans aircraft remains compelling.
I don’t know if flying is the most popular ability given to superheroes. It appears it is, particularly if your character is only able to leap tall buildings in a single bound – like the Hulk does. Or have a strange hammer that, if you hold onto it really, really tight, will allow you to fly without wrenching your god-like arm out of your god-like shoulder socket.
It’s always silly to compare superhero comics to “real” life, even if there truly was such a thing. Besides, superheroes are escapist fantasy, so no matter how often Spider-Man punches out Doctor Octopus while enduring a very bad cold, let’s not confuse the two… except, of course, for the purposes of the remainder of this column.
Flying would be a hazard to air traffic. If everybody could fly – and this also applies to those flying cars Julius Schwartz promised us 60 years ago – rush hour would be indistinguishable from a total eclipse of the sun. I don’t think we’d be able to breathe while flying. I know this wouldn’t bother Clark Kent, but the rest of us weren’t born on a doomed planet only to come to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men… well, Clark… and Kara and Krypto and Beppo the Super-Monkey and the infinite number of Phantom Zone denizens, extant and yet to come.
I have a hard time with the floating-in-the-air thing. Sure, it’s cool and it allows for remarkably dramatic poses in all relevant media, but if it’s part of the ability to fly, I don’t understand how that can be so. Well, except for the “because the writer says so” axiom, which always trumps logic in both storytelling and in mathematics. Our pal, fellow ComicMix columnist and genuine comics legend Denny O’Neil, in his guise as a comics editor, used to advise writers “it might be phony science, but it’s our phony science.”
And what happens if said flying superhero (or dog, or monkey, or villain) gets the poo beaten out of him (or her, or it) while airborne? This happens all the time, at least in comics. Said flying being instantly becomes a meteor ready to create a crater the size of Nebraska or open a fault line or a tsunami that likely will be a hazard to nuclear power plants and fish.
I realize this is a form of slacking. As a weekly contributor to ComicMix, I’m supposed to have the authority and gravitas that justifies the esteem in which I’m held by my colleagues, as well as the salary I’m paid. No answers, no paycheck.
Last week, my pal, Joe Corallo, wrote an impassioned column about Alters, a new series from AfterShock Comics about a group of superheroes that includes a transgender character. Joe was interested in the title but he confessed to a degree of fatigue caused by stories written by cis people about transitioning.
We met for tequila last week and talked about his column. While I hear his point, I think storytellers should tell the stories they want to tell. At the same time, audiences, of course, can ask for the kind of stories they want.
Apparently, Paul Jenkins, the writer and creator of the series, had somewhat similar thoughts. He reached out to Joe, and they did this interview. It touches on a lot of my obsessions. Who decides what stories get told? Who gets to tell them?
I don’t mean storytellers who are also fan, as my colleague Vinnie Bartilucci described. Fandom is its own thing, wild and free, which is as it should be. I mean people who are professional, who either work on creator-owned projects or get hired by the people who own the intellectual properties in question.
These people are, overwhelmingly, straight cis white men. They look like and talk like the people who hire them. Many of them create stories that move me and make me laugh or cry or hide under the covers with my cat because I thought I heard a noise. I’m very happy to live in a world where creators I like get to tell me the stories they want to tell.
At the same time, there are lots and lots of people who are not straight cis white men, who also tell stories that I enjoy. I like what I like. I hope you, too, enjoy getting to like what you like.
There are probably thousands (if not millions) of people of all colors and categories who also could tell me stories I would like, but I’ll never get to see them because they don’t have the same access to media as those mentioned above. I mean, I started to get work at Marvel Comics because I found out Denny O’Neil lived down the street from me, and I volunteered to water his plants when he went out of town. This is not an opportunity that anybody could have, even in the 1980s. It’s just about impossible now, not least because Denny is married and has a better support system for his botanical dependents.
Paul Jenkins wanted to tell a superhero story that includes a transwoman going through her transition. That’s the story that interests him. Joe has read a lot of stories like that (although probably without the super-powers parts) and he would like to read something different.
Who is right?
That’s the part I can’t answer. i’ve liked so much of what Paul has written over the years, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do with Alters, especially since it seems like a terrific premise. I’m also with Joe, wanting to see more different kinds of stories.
However, I will note that the most recent issues of both Bitch Planet and The Beauty are telling non-transition stories about transwomen.
The Internet was supposed to change a lot of this. It was going to be easy and inexpensive to publish, and everyone would have equal access to the means of distribution. That didn’t happen in quite the way I wanted (perhaps I’m too old, but finding new comics and reading them online is frustrating for me). The big names tend to be the people who look like the editors, and the editors keep looking like the money people, and the corporations are overwhelmingly run by straight, white men – who also are in charge of distribution, retail, and media.
We need more people telling more kinds of stories that more kinds of people will like. We need to acknowledge, with respect, that some people want to create and/or read stories that we, personally, might not want to read. Having highfaluting discussions about the socio-political implications of our choices is a wonderful thing, and my life would be diminished if I couldn’t do it.
Those opinions are not the same thing as criticism.
Are there stories you want to read about parts of life you think shouldn’t be ignored? By all means, speak up. Tell publishers what you want. Maybe try to create that story with your friends, and self-publish. That would be great.
Do you want to see more diversity in the professional comics community? So do I. Make a lot of noise. Write letters. Post columns. Ask questions at comic book conventions, especially at panels. Our industry is way behind the curve in this matter, and we all suffer as a result.
Paul Jenkins should tell the stories he wants to tell at AfterShock. And AfterShock should have more than one woman on staff and more than three women creators on their roster.
Even though it’s Independence Day today, I am going to talk about Flag Day. It was a couple of weeks ago, and on that day Geek Culture paused to remember the passing of a favorite son. It was a day to celebrate the legacy of Mark Gruenwald, taken away too early twenty years ago. And for a guy who loved Captain America, it was fitting that his birthday was on Flag Day.
Catherine Schuller organized a wonderful tribute to her late husband celebrating the passion and humor with which he lived his life. By just looking at the crowd in the funky New York City club where it was held, you could tell his passion was infectious and long lasting.
My first exposure to Mark Gruenwald came from his visionary fanzine. Omniverse was published long before the Internet provided an infinite number of virtual spots for fans to gather together to deeply discuss various aspects of their fandoms. The fanzine explored comic continuity (i.e., the internal mythology) in a detailed way that so many fanboys, myself included, had only wished existed. It was exciting and fun and thoughtful and invigorating!
Mark’s work on fanzines would lead to a long career at Marvel. He loved creating, writing, and editing stories. He got the chance to do those very things while at Marvel. After debuting on Spider-Woman, he enjoyed a long, groundbreaking run on Captain America, explored group dynamics with The Squadron Supreme mini-series and shepherded Quasar’s series from start to finish.
I attended this tribute event with my local friends Scott Kearny (Hero Cam) and Patrick Riley (The Adventures of Electrolyte), but there really was an impressive assembly of comic creators including Denny O’Neil, Tom Palmer, Fabian Nicieza, Danny Fingeroth and more.
Highlights of the event included a Captain America shield cake courtesy of the Cake Boss, DJ’s, dancers, photographers, an art exhibit and a unique type of autographed mini-posters. Limited quantities of these mini-posters are still available for sale and proceeds go to the scholarship fund. (Fans can contact Catherine here.)
One of the high points was when Mark’s daughter, cosplaying as Dazzler, took the stage with her stepmother Catherine Schuller.
Several comic luminaries spoke, each with their own take on this creator.
Tom Brevoort, currently Marvel’s executive editor, spoke with great humility. Even though he is a man of great accomplishments within the industry, he let it be known that he felt honored to be speaking amongst the other professionals at this tribute. Tom went on to provide great insights into the authenticity of Mark Gruenwald’s professional career.
Tom DeFalco talked about Gruenwald’s famous practical jokes, while Bob Budiansky and Elliot Brown talked about the extreme measures that Gruenwald would take to deal with corporate deadlines. Brown painted a picture of Mark as a cross between M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce and Groucho Marx. With great affection, Carl Potts also shared a few stories about all the practical jokes.
In his tribute, Denny O’ Neil explored what makes a legacy. In a very moving remembrance, the noted writer talked about the enjoyment of blazing new creative paths with Gruenwald and the respect he had for the Gruenwald’s “big shoulders”, i.e. the responsibility he would assume, even when it was unpleasant.
O’Neil revealed that one creative endeavor they were pursuing was actually experiencing strong negative criticism within the company. Interestingly, Gruenwald had protected O’Neil from it in order that “Denny could do his job,” unencumbered by these slings and arrows. Denny O’Neil also revealed that if the roles were reversed, he wasn’t sure he’d have the fortitude to protect Gruenwald in the same way.
Brevoort had an excellent observation. He pointed out that in old Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages Stan Lee was able to paint a picture of a fictional reality where a bunch of zany creators collaborated in a bullpen, making Marvel Comics with madcap fun. In reality, that was not the way it was in most cases.
But during his tenure at Marvel, Mark Gruenwald was an example of that fiction come to life. He was zany and madcap and mischievous. Despite the fact that this is an industry filled with so many introverts, folks loved this fiction and loved being a part of the culture that Gruenwald was bringing to life.
Catherine Schuller is an entertaining woman who clearly still has deep affection and love for her deceased husband. She was able to create an event that was respectful and outrageously loopy at the same time. And it all reminded us how lucky we were to have known Mark Gruenwald, or at least his work.
Mark was a visionary, and his quote from an old issue of Amazing Heroes magazine about a John Walker (a Marvel Character first called The Super-Patriot and later U.S. Agent) could easily apply today’s politics:
“He believes the American Dream is to make a mint and then retire. He says, “Yeah, I’m looking after number one. Why is my country so good? Because it’s given me the opportunity to make a lot of money. That is it’s [the American Dream’s] corrupted essence.”
I had a close friend and brother-in-arms named Larry Schlam, an attorney who specialized in juvenile rights. He later became a law professor and a lecturer on that same issue. He had been a doo-wop singer in Brooklyn, but that has no relevance to this topic. As it comes to us all, Larry died last year.
Back in 1971 or 1972, I was with Larry at his office in downtown Chicago. We were working late – to the extent that we were actually working – and I left around 10 PM. As I walked towards the elevators, I saw one about to close and, like many late-evening neurotics, I was convinced that was the last elevator for the night. I shouted “Please hold the elevator!” and a giant mitt popped out to hold the door open. I trotted into the booth, turned to thank my benefactor, and found myself face-to-face with Muhammad Ali.
I did a double-take that might have impressed Moe Howard. Ali let out a gut-level laugh, flashing that famous smile. I thanked him – I think in some version of English – and mumbled something about inspiration. He thanked me. It wasn’t the longest elevator ride in history, and I would have paid good money if the machine got stuck for an hour or two.
As it happened, Ali was in the building to meet with his lawyer, whose office happened to be next door to Larry’s. I had met the lawyer several times; this will become significant in a few paragraphs.
Like many baby boomers, perhaps most, to me Muhammad Ali wasn’t merely a boxer and a political activist and a humanitarian. Muhammad Ali was a legend, a living super-hero whose costume was a pair of Everlast shorts and two bulbous, cartoon-like gloves. That’s all he needed. Shortly after he became the youngest American to win the heavyweight title I read he often worked out at a gym on East 63rd Street, near the bank that held my family’s account. Every time I went there (admittedly, not all that often – protohippies didn’t have a lot of money) I would gawk up and down the street on the off-chance I could catch a glimpse of The Champ. Sadly, that didn’t happen until the elevator incident.
We now flash forward to 1978. I was on staff at DC Comics and we were about to release Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali. Part of my job was to publicize the book, and like most publicists I was trying to think up a gimmick. Ali was globally known as a man who could out-talk a Dexedrine fiend. The proverbial light bulb lit up over my head, and I called Larry Schlam and asked him to put me in touch with Ali’s lawyer.
I discussed my planned stunt and he was all in favor, and he added a few bells and whistles of his own. He also added the obvious admonition that The Champ might not agree or, if he did, he could change his mind right there at the press conference. Que sera, sera, as both Doris Day and Sly and the Family Stone used to sing.
Still, I was concerned the idea might tank, so I didn’t tell anybody. Not my faithful assistant Mike Catron, not my boss Jenette Kahn nor my co-boss Sol Harrison. As it turned out, Ali had sort of mentioned it to Jenette the evening before, but aside from that the only person who knew about it was celebrity columnist Irv Kupcinet, who stood ready to break the “exclusive” the moment it happened. That’s how you did it in the pre-Internet days.
The press conference was held at the massive Time-Life auditorium, which was filled with reporters, microphones and camera crews. We started the show with Jenette introducing The Champ… and not a single camera crew had their lights on. Jenette was, and certainly remains, an extremely photogenic person but they weren’t there to record her comments. They were there for Muhammad Ali.
When Ali took the microphone, the reporters started shouting out questions about his upcoming fight. And, for the first time ever in recorded history, the man who was called a blabbermouth (with good reason) about as often as he was called a boxer… refused to comment about that upcoming fight with Leon Spinks! This incited the press all the more, and they would not let up. Ali picked up our oversized comic book and said that was the only reason he was there.
He also said he hadn’t read it. That set off my “Oh-Oh” sense (thank you, Len Wein), but the press couldn’t care less. The headline was “Muhammad Ali Doesn’t Speak!”
But the second paragraph of that story read “he was there to promote his upcoming comic book, Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali” and it was on the front page of literally hundreds of newspapers across the planet. Most carried a shot of Neal’s meticulous and beautiful wraparound cover.
Comic books simply did not get this type of exposure in 1978. After the press conference I was offered a job by both Bob Arum and Don King, the two leading boxing promoters at the time and, perhaps, of all time. The next day the head of publicity at Warner Communications called to congratulate me, and then he asked me if I was going to take one of those job offers.
An aside: this wasn’t the first time a convicted murderer offered me a job, but it was the second time I declined a convicted murderer’s offer.Very, very politely.
Given the trajectory of my purposely unusual career, I have been fortunate enough (and, at times, unfortunate enough) to have met a lot of celebrities. Most were normal people; a bit isolated perhaps, but pretty much normal. Muhammad Ali had a presence that I cannot put into words. I think I would have felt the same way had I met the Buddha.
His life speaks for itself, in a tone much louder than any pre-fight couplet ever uttered by the three-time heavyweight champion of the world. He was a man of conviction, a man of principle who overcame racism and anti-Muslim sentiments and pro-war hysterics who took his crown for nearly four years during his prime in payment for standing up for his beliefs. Yeah, that always carries a price. Deal with it. Muhammad Ali did, and he won back his title. Twice.
When I think of Muhammad Ali, I think of the man and not the boxer. When he lit the torch at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1996, he body wracked with Parkinson’s, I was moved to tears. Muhammad Ali, the man, was indeed The Greatest.
For all you mainstream comic fans, last week was a doozy. If you’re in that tiny minority of people that somehow avoided all the craziness last week, haven’t read the new Captain America or DC Rebirth but still plan on it, maybe it’d be best if you did before you read on. I’m totally going to spoil things.
Now that we’re all caught up let’s start with the less controversial DC Rebirth #1. Other than my own personal issues with it being far too heavy on the exposition through narrative (come on people, it’s a visual medium!) the most striking thing to myself and seemingly many others was the introduction of Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen fame into the main DC continuity.
Watchmen has been an odd property at DC ever since it premiered, never quite being in the DCU but also not being allocated to one of DC’s smaller imprints. Damn near very comics fan is at least somewhat familiar with Alan Moore’s falling out with DC Comics. People higher up in DC like Paul Levitz did try to respect Alan Moore’s wishes in so far as pushing back against others within the company from trying to use the property in other projects. However, after Paul was no longer corporate president, plans were quickly put in motion to capitalize on Watchmen’s success with Before Watchmen.
Before Watchmen was met with mixed reviews and comparatively disappointing sales. So after Before Watchmen flopped, why would DC want to try to incorporate Dr. Manhattan into the main DCU? Did they feel like they haven’t annoyed Alan Moore enough recently? Incorporating Watchmen into Rebirth seems like it’s not only a bad idea, but a bad idea with a recent proven track record of being a bad idea.
We’ll get back to that in a bit. Now onto the more controversial comic from last week, Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. In case you did not heed my earlier warning and are reading this without having heard what happened, live firmly under a rock with no Internet access and someone was kind enough to print this column out for you, Captain America has come out as a Hydra agent. You know, that Hydra. The bad one. The one that has caused the Internet to argue over exactly what degree of Nazi that Hydra is.
Newsflash: if you’re arguing about how Nazi a thing is, said thing in question is probably already too Nazi.
I’m not going to get into too many of the details here as it’s been explained and editorialized into oblivion since last week. I do fall onto the side of the argument that goes: maybe don’t do this to a beloved movie franchise character that children look up to. And I will add that some people I’ve seen compared this to Superior Spider-Man, and while I under that it’s tempting to compare the two the reality of this fiction is that we all knew Superior Spider-Man was Doc Ock from day one.
Although both of these events last Wednesday seem radically different from one another, they are really both different parts of the same problem. The mainstream comic book industry, Marvel and DC, are uniquely trapped by their intellectual property and this problem has not and is not being addressed properly. I’d argue that reboots are absolutely necessarily for these companies. The problem is that they keep trying to reboot the characters and stories, but what really needs to be rebooted is the corporate culture.
We live in as world where if you create new characters for Marvel or DC you have no ownership of them. They could be a huge hit and a cash grab for a generation or more, but you won’t see much money from it, if any. Hell, our own Denny O’Neil wrote the Iron Man story that was borrowed heavily from to create the movie that launched Marvel Studios and saved the company. Try to find a producer credit for him.
No one expects every idea to take off and be a mega hit. And comics is a very collaborative medium where it can become difficult to figure out exactly who gets the credit, especially in the years before this was taken more seriously. However, a creator is not going to be nearly as motivated to use the best ideas, create the best characters, and give Marvel or DC the chance of getting big crossover hit. They can just take those ideas to Image or another creator-owned publisher.
You see it all the time now. Indie creators getting some buzz, Marvel or DC scooping them up and helping build the creator’s fan base, then said creator takes a chunk of those fans with them when they decide they’ve gotten enough out of Marvel or DC and focus on their creator-owned ideas. Just look at Rick Remender, Alex Kot, Matt Fraction. Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Ed Brubaker. That’s just off the top of my head.
I get that it’s not an easily solved situation for Marvel and DC. I understand how these are complicated problems that involved multiple departments and corporate entities. However, the way both companies are handling their properties right now with the constant reboots, reshuffling, shooting for short term profits and ignoring (at least publicly) long term solutions, the only reboot they really need to concern themselves with is in their legal departments.
Go check your phone or computer for the date. Did yours denote the year 2016? Mine did. In the immortal words of my muse, Bartholomew Simpson… “God-schmod, I want my monkey man!”
Now Bart was referencing a future in which humanity would have half-man/half-monkey hybrids as pets. While I too would love such an abomination on the open market, I come today in search of another future technology that seemingly should exist, but for whatever reason… isn’t. I come in search of a universally accepted streaming comic book service.
To date, I believe the most ubiquitous platform for digital comic book consumption is comixOlogy. They, like iTunes, offer an exhaustive catalog of periodicals of the pulpy nature. You find the ones you want, you purchase them, and you’re treated to enjoying them in a proprietary reader. Your digital library is always available to you, and can be read on desktops, tablets, and mobile phones alike. It’s not a bad system. But then again… it is.
I have never read Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Nor Peter David’s Hulk. I have not glimpsed at a single panel of Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern / Green Arrow. In all instances, it’s not that there isn’t desire. It’s that I know to enjoy those tomes, I would need to sacrifice the purchase of modern books. And somehow the threat of missing what’s going on now always trumps the desire to read something that I know I’ll love. It’s the reason it took me two years after the end of Breaking Bad to actually watch the pilot. It’s the same reason I waited 33 years to begrudgingly watch Doctor Who.
In all other major media, there is a shift occurring. Because digital media needs only storage to remain viable to the consumer, the rise of subscription services are creating new audiences by burying them in an unending pile of content. Content accessible without restriction – save only for an affordable monthly fee. With Netflix, I can access an astoundingly large library of TV and movies for a tenth of what I’d spend on cable service. For less that I’d spend on a single CD, I can access Spotify and with it more music than I could ever hope to listen to in a lifetime. It seems a shame that somehow amidst all these successful services, we’ve yet to see comics do the same.
What’s holding them back? Perhaps the complicated legality of it all. Figuring out royalties for an individual item can’t be easy. Hell, don’t we all remember when TayTay Swift threw a (still ongoing) hissy about her music? You see, Spotify and the like pay on a complicated system of plays, royalty percentages, and the actual number of paying subscribers. That way, artists may be inclined to pimp their streaming albums as means to the end. What it equates to is an average of $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream. Music though, is often a repeated enjoyment. Comics, not so much.
Take my music consumption habits for example: I make a few playlists of things I like to jam out to. One list (“Guilty Pleasures”) exists as a bank where songs check in and check out until I’m sick of them. I’ll play this list of 20-30 songs almost 4-5 times in a given week. Each song stays in my playlist for about two months or so. Anyone doing the soft math would eventually realize that in those plays, I don’t even come close to paying even the $0.99 it’d cost to purchase the song outright on iTunes. But, the artists still let ride. Why?
I’d like to think for the same reason I’d be more than happy to see my own indie titles in a subscription service where I was paid pennies for downloads. Because I know at the end of the day, content purchase is only one revenue stream. I purchase tangible CDs and graphic novels from musicians and artists I love via their crowdfunding campaigns. I purchase tickets to concerts. And I socially share things I like to those who I think might like it too. This leads to secondary and tertiary means by which the content creators I love ultimately see success. When it comes to comics, sure, we might enjoy accessing a large library of readables digitally. But we’ll also attend comic-cons where we’ll tempted to enjoy the collectible side of our favorite medium. That means the same book now potentially raises revenue multiple times. I’d consider that a win in my book.
At the end of the day, let’s be honest: It’s Marvel and DC’s passive-aggressive war with one another that will prevent a service such as I desire. They’ll continue to keep a stranglehold on their licensable properties and await the sales to spike when the next movie or TV show debuts. They’ll await the demise of the original creators still drawing a royalty on their creations.
And off to the side, great publishers like Image, Boom! and the like will push the boundaries of the medium, and enjoy their continued rising success in the direct market – small as it may be in terms of bottom line profits. Strange then to think that if the music industry could find a reasonable solution, that pulp and paper will continue to keep their heads in the sand.