Tagged: Julius Schwartz

Ed Catto: Robert Loren Fleming’s Thrill Ride, Part 1

In the 80s, DC comics woke up the comics industry with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. Fans and retailers were anxiously awaiting the next big thing. Thriller, the comic that you couldn’t read fast enough, was supposed to be that next big thing. Management was excited about this fresh title. The DC marketing department got behind it and sent the writer on the road with a presentation. Distributors got behind the first issues. Comic shop retailers aggressively ordered the first issue.

And then…it wilted. Thriller wasn’t the next big thing. It doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of great things about the series. There certainly were. In the recent issue of Back Issue magazine, I looked at Thriller and the tumultuous backstory. As a fan, I always liked the early issues of the series, and now, understanding the backstage drama, I love it, and respect it, even more.

Series co-creator and writer Robert Loren Fleming wasn’t able to fully participate in that article. Since it’s publication, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Thriller. And now, I’ve finally caught up with Robert Loren Fleming. So, as podcaster Karina Longworth always says: “Join us, won’t you?”… for an extended look from at the tragedy of DC Comic Lost Classic Thriller.

Breaking into Comics

Robert Loren Fleming loved comics and was determined to break into the industry with his secret plan. It was the early 80s and he had started at DC as a proofreader. He loved working for the company and being a part of the industry. But he was impatient to become a comics writer. He eventually did and scripted favorites like the Flash and Ambush Bug. But it wasn’t easy to crack the code at DC comics.

“I found out pretty quickly it was kind of a closed shop – pretty hard to break in as a writer,” said Fleming. “It was really difficult to get a story sold.”

The legendary Julie Schwartz even had some advice for Fleming when he was pitching Superman ideas. “Julie told me to go home and not to think about any ideas. He told me twice, in case I missed it,” recalls Fleming with a chuckle.

Upon reflection, Fleming realizes it was a kind of a hazing ritual. If you weren’t tough enough to get through it, you weren’t tough enough to be a writer at DC Comics.

At that time there was an unwritten career path for young writers at DC. And as a proofreader, he was, more or less, on that long track. Aspiring writers would work on the corporate side for a while. Eventually, they’d be given their start with short story assignments for anthology comics. Writing assignments for the company’s prestigious superhero comics wouldn’t be offered for quite some time. If you showed talent and professionalism, you’d be awarded bigger assignments.

His Sneaky Plan

Fleming reasoned that the only way to break into quickly was “to come up with my own personal story and a big idea that it would be so good they have to take it.”

An idea was percolating in Fleming’s head for a new series that would showcase some of the things he loved: pulp adventures, an ensemble cast and a science fiction adventure that would shift away from the traditional superhero stories, dominating the market at that time.

“When I finished it, I took it to four or five editors. They wouldn’t even look at it.” Clearly, Fleming hadn’t yet paid his dues by working on smaller projects first. Looking back, Fleming realizes his secret plan was fueled by the audacity and courage that comes with youth.

He presented his idea to the top guy. “So I took it into Dick Giordano. <This was> jumping the chain of command,” said Fleming. Editor-in-Chief Giordano had no problem with Fleming bringing it directly to him. “He read the thing and 15 minutes later he bought it. Paul Levitz read it a few days later – he signed off too.”

Partnership with TVE

Levitz suggested that a young artist named Trevor Von Eeden be assigned to the series. At that time, the Marvel series Master of Kung Fu, by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy, was a big influence on Fleming. Fleming loved that series’ ensemble cast, the espionage themes and the casting of real people as comic characters. In fact, of the characters in his proposed Thriller series, Quo, was essentially Bruce Lee.

When Levitz showed Fleming the recent Batman Annual by Von Eeden, Fleming could see all of the elements he loved in Master of Kung Fu in the artist’s work. Fleming knew Von Eeden’s style would be perfect for Thriller.

Bucking the System

One of the things Fleming didn’t realize – no up-and-coming young buck ever does – is that you don’t gain a lot of allies internally by jumping over the established system. The editors at that time were not amused.

“It created a strong reaction against me,” said Fleming. “A very negative reaction. One of them (an editor) came out and said to Dick, ‘You’re not going to let Fleming write it, are you?’”

It got worse. The editors conspired to see Flemings non-traditional idea and audacious career tactic fail. They put a number of obstacles in the way of Thriller.

Off Target with The Green Arrow

One obstacle, in particular, was the Green Arrow. At that time, Green Arrow was one of the characters who was always a bridesmaid but never a bride. He was a supporting player in the Justice League of America, a co-star in the groundbreaking Green Lantern – Green Arrow series and a staple of backup stories. He was finally getting the go-ahead to headline a comic with a four issue mini-series, written by Mike W. Barr.

Fleming recalls that Trevor Von Eeden was assigned as the series artist, specifically to keep Von Eeden busy. He’s too busy working on this Green Arrow series. The idea was that he’d be so consumed with this miniseries, and it would take so long for him to draw, that the young artist would lose his passion for Thriller.

But that did not happen. This Green Arrow mini-series looked phenomenal. Von Eeden delivered work that was fresh and exciting. One would think that he spent an inordinate amount of time on it. In reality, Fleming explains, the opposite was true.

Unbelievably, Trevor Von Eden finished all four in an incredibly quick amount of time – something like six or eight weeks. And then both the writer and artist were ready for Thriller.

•     •     •     •     •

Next week we’ll explore more Robert Loren Fleming’s memories and observations about what happens when you actually, against all odds, arrive at the starting line!

Interested in the full article in Back Issue #98? You can snag it here.

John Ostrander: Riding With The King

Last Monday was the 100th birthday of the King o’ Comics, Jack Kirby. The young’uns among you might not know the name (or maybe they do; I try not to be a fuddy-duddy most days) but Kirby was a force unparalleled in the comics medium. If you need a primer, Mike Gold wrote an excellent column about him.

Even if you know Marvel only from the movies, you owe him. Captain America? Jack. The X-Men? Jack. The Black Panther? Jack. The Avengers? Jack. And so on and so forth. And not just at Marvel; King Kirby seemed to be everywhere. And not just superheroes; he did Westerns, monsters, romance. And so on and so forth.

I met him in person exactly once.

The first thing I need to explain is that, before I became a professional writer in comics, I was a bonafide geek. Yeah, I still am.

One of the big thrills when I first started was that at conventions I could meet my heroes as a fellow professional. In theory. Not as a peer; that suggested I was an equal and that was not how I felt.

So – it’s early in my career and I’m working the First Comics booth at the Chicago Comicon along with my wife, Kim Yale. We were the only ones working the booth at that moment. It wasn’t in the main room and we weren’t getting much traffic.

Then this small group of people walk by, talking among themselves, and in the middle of it is Jack Kirby.

OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!

(Point of historical accuracy: Back some 30 or so years ago when this story takes place, we never said “OMG!,” at least not in the Midwest. I just wanted to convey the impact of the moment in modern terms.)

Kim later said she watched me turn into a 14-year old fanboy complete with zits. I can’t imagine that was pleasant.

In the group, I spotted Julie Schwartz, himself a legend and an icon. There’d be no Silver Age DC without Julie. Possibly no modern comics industry.

I knew Julie a little through Mike Gold so I hiss at him, “Julie! Hey, Julie! Hey!”

Julie spots me and ambles over. “Hey, kid, how ya doin’?”

“Julie! Introduce me to the King!” I plead.

Julie looks at me like I’m demented and maybe, at the moment, I am. “It’s Jack,” he tells me. “Just go over and say hi.”

“No no no no no! I can’t I can’t I can’t! Don’t you see?! He’s the King!” “Hey, Julie! Help a guy out!”

Julie gives me a pitying look and says, “C’mon, kid.”

I walk over to the group with Julie and he does a nice intro of me. The King shakes my hand, says “HiHowareya.” I babble something about what an honor gee you’re my hero blah blah blah. And it’s over. The King and his group move on.

I wish I could say that I never washed that hand again but Kim would have insisted.

I doubt very much that the moment would have stayed with Jack Kirby but it has stayed with me in vivid detail for a couple of decades. Over the past few years, I’ve met some fans who treat me sort of like I treated Jack. (Trust me, gang; I’m not that impressive and I can give you references.) There was only one Jack Kirby and there will ever be only one Jack Kirby and he just turned 100.

Happy birthday, Jack. Long live the King.

Mike Gold: Time, Space, and Adam Strange

It was, for its time, the coolest comic book on the racks. Lucky for me, having just turned eight years old I was at the perfect age to best enjoy it.

In fact, I already was lusting for the comic by the time it hit my local drug store. The house ad promoting the issue had been running in several of the DC comics for a few weeks, and it intrigued the hell out of me. Back in those days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, new comic book heroes were very few and very far between, even though 1958 was something of a boom year. DC had a title called Showcase that offered new concepts a try out – usually three issues. Yes, it was joined by The Brave and the Bold, but not until the summer of 1959. Showcase begat the Challengers of the Unknown, Lois Lane, the Metal Men, and the silver age Flash, Green Lantern and The Atom… among others.

Whereas it isn’t hard to get an eight-year old all excited, this comic book had a pedigree that few others approached. It was created by, if you’ll forgive the word, legends. Julius Schwartz was the editor and the ringleader, and he reached for his A team. Gardner Fox, arguably the most accomplished comics writer in American history, did the scripting and he co-plotted it with fellow comics writer and science fiction icon Edmond Hamilton, along with the aforementioned Julie Schwartz. The cover artist was Gil Kane, and the story artist was Mike Sekowsky.

The series was called Adam Strange. It featured a run-of-the-mill Earthling who found himself transported by Zeta Beam to the planet Rann where he fell in love with the chief scientist’s daughter while flying around, usually with her, vanquishing alien invasions and monsters and such. When the Zeta Beam wore off Adam faded back to Earth, usually right after he saved the day but right before he could kiss his lover. That drove him bugfuck, and back on Earth he figured out where and when that Zeta Beam would strike next… usually just in time to save Rann once again.

What made Adam Strange work – in 1958 – was the costume. It was classic science fiction spaceman. Jet-pack, helmet, ray gun, and all red with white accents. It was designed by still another legend, Murphy Anderson. Murphy had been drawing science fiction heroes since 1944. In fact, he drew the newspaper adventures of one of the very first such heroes, Buck Rogers, and Buck’s influence on Adam’s costume was quite evident – and very welcome.

The whole thing started as a contest. DC executive vice president Irwin Donenfeld thought what the world needed was a new s-f hero and he challenged editors Julius Schwartz and Jack Schiff. Jack’s Space Ranger was published in Showcase #15 and #16; Adam Strange lived in the next three issues.

As it turned out, neither character won – yet neither character lost, either. Adam Strange became the lead feature in Mystery In Space, drawn by the near-mythic Carmine Infantino and always occupying the cover, while Space Ranger lived in Tales of the Unexpected. For the record: Space Ranger also was created by Gardner Fox and Edmond Hamilton, but the two were as different as night and day. The main difference: Space Ranger was rather typical, and Adam Strange was exciting.

Both series lasted until the mid-60s. By that time, the United States and Russia had sent a passel of humans (and a few dogs) into outer space, and the reality of what you could see on the home screen was vastly more compelling than 1950s science fiction heroes.

Of course, in comic books nothing ever goes away, and here Adam got the best of the Ranger. Adam Strange remains a vital force in the DC Universe to this day, and now Adam Strange is going to enjoy something of a starring role in the latest DC teevee show, Krypton. Mindy Newell reported on this Monday, although she revealed only a fraction of our deeply existentialist conversation.

I’m glad to see Adam is still around, but I’m reminded of DC publisher Jenette Kahn’s reaction to the character back in 1977 when Jack C. Harris and I discussed a run in the revived Showcase. She took home a couple bound volumes from the library, read them over the weekend, came back and pronounced it “dated.”

Yup. It was. And that was the point. But DC needed to develop its astrophysical borders, so Jack pretty much kept the story, which also featured Hawkman and Hawkwoman. We renamed the series Hawkman, and it did okay.

Amusingly, Hawkwoman (or Hawkgirl) will be joining Adam Strange in the new Krypton series. This will not be the same woman from the current DC/CW teevee shows as these shows (except Supergirl) inhabit a parallel universe in which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman do not exist.

As of yet.

Television has learned a lot from comic books.

 

Mindy Newell: July 18, 2017


When the father of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrodinger – he of Schrödinger’s Cat fame – told a Dublin audience in 1952 that “…his Nobel equations seemed to describe several different histories, these were ‘not alternatives, but all really happen simultaneously,’ it was the first time that the multiverse was addressed as a scientific theory and not just science fiction.

So Editor Mike texted me on Saturday to let me know that Adam Strange – I don’t mean an actor, I mean the DC character–is going to be a regular on the new Krypton series on SyFy sometime in 2018, if everything stays on track – and how often does that happen?

For those not in the know, and that’s all of you, because I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here, Adam Strange was my first “comics crush” back in the day, and I continue to love him. And I don’t mean any modern interpretation of him, but the original science fiction personage created by Julius Schwartz, with a costume design by Murphy Anderson, and who first appeared in Showcase #17, cover-dated November 1958. (I was five years old.)

I texted him back:

“Adam Strange has nothing to do with Krypton.”

Mike: “Well, he does now. This series, which lives in a universe separate from the comics, the movies, and maybe even the other teevee [sic] serieses [sic], is set in both the deep past (on the planet Krypton, no longer extant) and in the present day. But let us remember that Superman does not exist on the teevee [sic] Earth where Flash, Green Arrow, and the Legends live.”

Me: “Part of the multiverse.”

Mike: “Sure. Aren’t we all?”

And then, I wrote this back to him:

“Maybe that’s what death is. I mean the ‘near death’ experiences that people talk about…that white light…some kind of “wormhole” event horizon connecting us to the next life in the next universe, the one that is ‘second star to the right and straight on to morning’…And that’s why people have reincarnation experiences and/or déjà vu…They are glimpses of the multiverse.”

Quantum leaping.

•     •     •     •     •

Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. So don’t be afraid… Matthew 10:29, 31

Driving down to Cherry Hill with Alixandra to see my mom last Sunday – somewhere in my heart I knew this would be the last time – we hit traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Not enough to slow down completely, but the speedometer was reading 45 or 50 mph. All of a sudden, a sparrow landed on the passenger side-view mirror. It just sat there for a few seconds, maybe five, looking at us through the window. And then it flew away.

As in an M. Knight Shaymalan movie, there are signs everywhere.

My favorite line in Ben-Hur:

“The world is more than we know.”

•     •     •     •     •

Today, as I write this, is Sunday, July 23, 2017.

It has been six days.

Four since the funeral.

Yet somehow it feels like forever.

And at the same time like it didn’t happen at all.

I guess that is as good as any definition of grief.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Alfred Bester’s Squinkas

Read any good squinkas lately?

If you’re a comic book editor, you’d better hope you have, though, if you did, you probably called them, these squinkas, something else. Scripts, maybe.

I was introduced to the word, squinka, by a gentleman who certainly was an editor, one of the two or three best I ever worked for in a career of something like 50 years (which just goes to show you what can be achieved if you manage to breathe regularly and often. Ooops! I just let it slip – the secret of success in the writing dodge. If the writer refuses to breathe, the rest of it is irrelevant.)

Before beginning his long and illustrious stint behind a desk at DC Comics, young Mr. Schwartz was a literary agent whose specialty was peddling science fiction stories to the pulps – fiction magazines that were garish and cheap and widely available. Even after Mr. Schwartz migrated to DC, he maintained an interest in science fiction, which was occasionally manifest in the kind of comics he produced, the kinds of stories he liked to tell, and the questions he asked, often about the folk he knew from his agenting days, when imaginative tales were tainted with disreputability. They were, you know, trash.

That calumny didn’t seem to bother SF partisans much. Writers continued writing, editors continued editing, artists continued picture-making and gradually, the taint faded and then, somehow, the aficianados began to number in the millions and the production costs of the film versions of this trash climbed into the eight-figure neighborhood.

Rewind back to comics’ youth, when the medium was week-by-week and month-by-month inventing itself and creators might not have their tool kits in order. To be specific: they might not have had industry-wide formats or even names for everything they produced.

Motion pictures had been telling stories for some 35 years and had developed a vocabulary – necessary to facilitate communication, if for no other reason. But these here funny books? They were the new kids on the block. Their ancestors were arguably the aforementioned movies, newspaper comic strips and those naughty pulps, all of which shared certain similarities with the comic books. But they weren’t the same, not by a stretch.

So, I’m guessing, somebody saw a hole and decided to fill it. Neologisms anyone?

But the new word wasn’t very healthy. It didn’t last long. I never heard anyone, in or out of comics, use it. By the time Roy Thomas brought me into the comics herd, it had come and gone. I wouldn’t know that “squinka” had ever existed if I hadn’t stumbled across it in a collection of stories, articles and essays by Alfred Bester titled redemolished. Bester was, among other things, the recipient of the first Hugo, an award given to the creator of outstanding works of sf and, believe it or not, one of Mr. Schwartz’s clients. And a comic book writer; Green Lantern comes to mind.

I don’t know if Mr. Bester ever said “squinka” in his dealings with comics editors. Now days, nodding to his television colleagues, he might just say “script” and run for the subway.

Mike Gold: Wish I Could Fly Like Superman

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!

Me, too.

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.

Yeah. I know. Reality sucks.

And that’s why we all want to fly.

John Ostrander: Jack Kirby is Still King!

I may have told this story before but I’m at an age where you repeat yourself a lot. And it’s germane to this column.

Years ago, when I was still somewhat new to the industry, I was working the First Comics booth at a Chicago Con along with my lovely wife, Kim Yale. A group of pros walked past me that included Julie Schwartz, the legendary DC editor, and Roz and Jack Kirby.

My jaw dropped and I started hyperventilating. Kim gave me a strange look.

“Pssst! Julie!” I whispered. I knew Julie from DC, at least somewhat. Ever affable, Julie came to the table.

“Whatcha want, kid?”

“Introduce me to the King!” Julie gave me a strange look.

“Whattaya talking about? It‘s just Jack. Come over and say hello.”

“No no no no no! I can’t! Don’t you understand?! He’s the King! Help a guy out, wouldja?”

Julie looked at me like I was demented, which I probably was. He just shook his head and said, “C’mon, kid.” I was still young enough to be called a kid… comparatively speaking.

Julie took me over to the group and made the intro and Jack Kirby shook my hand and said “Hi. Howareya.” I made noises resembling words. I think my voice cracked. Kim would later tell me that she watched her husband turn into a 14-year old boy, complete with zits a-poppin’.

I freely admit it. Jack Kirby was the King and, despite making my living in comics, I was still the fan-nerd I had always been.

And still am.

Many of you out there will know all about Jack Kirby and will need no explanation, but some of you might.

Jack Kirby (1917-1994) was born in Brooklyn as Jacob Kurtzberg and got into the comics biz in the Thirties which was the dawn of comics. He took out time for World War II and then came back and worked for a number of different publishers.

What makes Jack Kirby the King? For me, it’s this.

  1. Imagination – The word “prodigious” comes to mind. So many concepts, so many characters, bear his mark. So many styles of stories. From the spires of Asgard to the weird distortions of the Negative Zone to the brutal cityscapes of Apokolips, to Ego the Living Planet, no one could top his visuals.
  2. Storytelling – His figures leaped off the page. The panels couldn’t contain the events on them. Even standing still, they vibrated with potential power. There was energy to burn on his pages. You felt them as much as you read them. You couldn’t read the story fast enough and when one issue was done you wanted the next one right now.
  3. Artistry – Okay, his anatomy was not always perfect. And every woman’s face looked the same. He was still one of the best ARTISTS that ever drew a comic because comics are about storytelling and no one beat Kirby as a storyteller.

He and the other titans of his era invented comic books, for cryin’ out loud! Without the King, there is no Marvel Universe, let alone the Marvel Movie Universe! He created or co-created Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, the Howling Commandos, S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers, Black Panther, the X-Men, the Inhumans, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Loki, and the Hulk – among so many others… including Groot! At DC he created Darkseid, the whole New Gods, OMAC, Etrigan the Demon, Challengers of the Unknown (only one of the great titles in DC history), the Boy Commandos, The Guardian and gobs of others! And he did a whole posse of Westerns and co-created the genre of romance comics! He turned out three or more penciled books a month plus the occasional oversized Annual! My brain explodes!!!

(I don’t know if you can talk about Jack Kirby without using exclamation points!)

So here’s to the King! I did eventually wash the hand that you shook; Kim insisted. However, you were and are one of my comic book heroes and I’m glad I had the chance to meet you.

Mike Gold: Our Greatest Ape

grodd-flash

You’ve probably seen the second Superhero Fight Club by now; if you haven’t and you’ve got four minutes to spare, go give this a click. It’s great fun, not necessarly part of The DC-CW continuity, and it brings Supergirl in to play with the boys. And Felicity, of course.

SPOILER ALERT! (I’ve always wanted to say that!) From this point forward, I’m going to write stuff that presumes you’ve seen Superhero Fight Club 2, although as spoilers go, I’ve already spoiled it with my choice of graphics and my headline. Sue me.

grodd-cwEasily, the coolest part of the short is the “surprise” appearance of Gorilla Grodd, who already has been established in The Flash teevee series. But, let’s face it, Gorilla Grodd usually is the coolest part of damn near everything he’s ever appeared in, dating back to his introduction in early 1959. I’m sure you’re aware of the common belief that, at least in the 1950s and 1960s, putting a gorilla on the cover of a comic book guaranteed higher sales. I’m sure you’re aware of this because I’m one of the wags who has spent the past several decades sharing that observation at every possible opportunity.

Of course I found Grodd amazing at the time of his introduction, in the second issue of the silver-age Flash, #106 (DC Comics didn’t have the auto-renumbering algorithm built into their reboot program way back in 1959). I was eight years old. The fact that John Broome and Carmine Infantino did one hell of a great comic book story helped a lot, and to put it in context Grodd came as a complete surprise to us at the time because he was not cover featured! It was the Pied Piper who on the cover. I realize this flies in the face of the “putting a gorilla on the cover of a comic book guaranteed higher sales” theory, but damn, you open the comic book and there’s this big gorilla frying The Flash with “deadly thought waves.” By the time I got to the Pied Piper story, that villain was – please forgive me – an also-ran.

Editor Julius Schwartz knew he was on to something. He usually was those days, but on page 15 of “The Menace of the Super-Gorilla” he captioned “In the next issue of The Flash – another Super-Gorilla thriller!”

However…

Grodd was not on the cover of that second appearance, either. The cover was all about some guy who could outrun The Flash by running backwards. Where’s the damn super-gorilla?

Right there on page one. On the final story page, Barry Allen is reading the newspaper and hoping he never sees Grodd again. Fat chance, Barry. Julie ratted it out in the last caption, stating the smart ape would return “in a forthcoming issue.”

And there Grodd was. In the very next issue, #108. And, for the third time in three issues, he was not on the cover. After that I’d have an attitude problem too!

flashgrodd1For the record, our great ape didn’t return for another seven issues. The Mirror Master came back in the following issue, and Wally West was introduced in the issue after that. Grodd didn’t make it back into The Flash until #115, September 1960…

… and he wasn’t on the cover of that issue either!

Gorilla Grodd didn’t make it to the cover until #127. By that point, Jay Garrick had been brought back, the Elongated Man, Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, the Trickster and several other important rogues were introduced, and The Flash clearly was the most exciting comic book on the racks at the time.

Although by then The Flash was in for a run for the money. A few months earlier we saw the debut of the Marvel Universe. The Fantastic Four encountered their first ape villain – three of them, in fact – in 1963.

And they didn’t appear on the cover, either.

Mike Gold: Holy Geriatrics, Batman!

Batman 66 Blu-Ray

Bear with me once again as we step into the “borrowed” WABAC machine to visit another era – one fraught with its own cultural peccadillos, its own world-view, and its own sensibilities.

You’ve probably heard that WB is extending their never-ending line of direct-to-disc DC-based animated features this fall to include a new, original, and undoubtedly awesome story set in the world of the 1966 Batman teevee show. In order to do this effectively they needed to procure the services of the sadly few surviving series stars, so they wisely put Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar in a recording studio to belt out their performances as Batman, Robin and Catwoman-the-first, respectively.

None found this a new experience. West has been voicing all sorts of stuff – most notably, Family Guy, although he returned to Gotham City in several of the subsequent animated Batman teevee series. Ward voiced Robin in numerous animated shows, and Newmar voiced Catwoman in the Arkham Asylum video game. She also played Martha Wayne to Adam West’s Thomas Wayne in The Brave and The Bold. And good for them; I’m glad they’re still around and still working.

But, wait. Let’s take that stolen borrowed WABAC and zot on down to January 12, 1966, the day the original live-action Batman series debuted. ABC promoted it heavily, stoking up the crowds to a fevered pitch with shots of sundry stars in action and of the greatest teevee car ever built. “People” were awaiting that debut with great curiosity while “comics fans” were looking for entertainment and validation. Many comics fans at the time felt they received neither.

The show was a joke. A sitcom in the classic “Hi Honey I’m Home” sense of the term. I enjoyed it, although my friends did not. I was a big fan of comedian/actor Frank Gorshin, and he was brilliant as The Riddler. I also enjoyed Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, both Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, and Victor Buono as absolutely everything he ever did anywhere. And the show was funny – unfortunately, before too long we had seen everything they could offer and Batman the Phenomenon grew boring.

But not before the mid-summer debut of the wonderful movie version, which offered us all four main villains and a slew of fabulous toys (to quote a Joker of another mother) and a decent story, written by the teevee show’s developer, Lorenzo Semple Jr. Remember that name.

jujubes-theater-boxI think the reason why so many of my fellow comics fans of the time disliked – well, make that hated – the teevee series was because it was too close to the comic books. Not the Julie Schwartz-edited books of the time, but the Jack Schiff run that preceded it. Julie took over in 1964, around the time the teevee show started pre-production. Still, Julie did heroic work in restoring Batman to its historical glory, and this new… sitcom… seemed to undermine that effort.

Case in point: Around 1980 I was editing a magazine called Video Action and I pulled from my mini-horde of comics friends to write for the magazine. Marv Wolfman, he of enormous and well-earned comics fame, reviewed the movie Flash Gordon – a decent adaptation of the classic comics strip, except for the actors who played the male and female leads (yeah, that’s a problem). Marv started out with a condemnation of the movie’s writer, the aforementioned Lorenzo Semple Jr., as the man who ruined Batman. To be fair, Marv handled all that with his usual laser-like wit and affable charm, but he made it clear that he didn’t want to be invited to any dinner parties that Semple might attend.

That was then, and this is now (and so is the next moment; but I digress). Baby boomers love to talk about how great rock and roll was back “in our day,” but a lot of the most popular stuff heard on the radio sucked and we-all condemned it. But as both we and the music aged, we’d hear those tunes on the car radio and we’d find ourselves singing along.

I think, so it is with Batman 1966. It’s part of our childhood, our kids think it kinda ridicules our childhood and they like that, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to see the intended humor in the series when you contrast that approach with the almost psychopathic Batman we’ve seen over the past two decades. As an unintentional parody of these more “serious” times, the 1966 show can be kind of fun.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is due to be released on home video in mid-October and I’ll probably see it. It won’t get the same reception that the 1966 theatrical received when I went to see it at a Saturday matinee filled with 11 year olds, but that’s because it’s less likely that the younger movie-watchers will be hurling lethal Jujubes at one another.

But, of course, I’m not speaking for Marv here. To the best of my knowledge, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is not based upon a script by Lorenzo Semple Jr.

 

Dennis O’Neil: Justice Society – Forward Into The Past!

JSA

Back from a mission, the particulars of which I am not at liberty to divulge though I can reveal that it involved a food store, and… Look! Someone has deposited a package on the front stoop. A friend? An enemy? One of those uniformed people who drive around the neighborhood in trucks? Make haste! Slit the tape, fold back the flaps, and…

Well, look at that. A book. We already have a lot of those, but hey, always room for another, especially if it’s a handsome hardcover titled Justice Society of America: A Celebration of 75 Years. Seventy-five years already? They grow up so fast…

It must have been a no-brainer, all those years ago. Superman was a success. Ditto Batman. The rest of Detective / All-American Comics’ cadre of costumed do-gooders were doing at least okay, if not better, and if those mysterious beings out there beyond the office walls – call them “readers” – like superdoers in single doses then they’ll go nuts for a bunch of such heroes in the same magazine and – here comes the challenge for the editorial department – all of them working on the same problem.

The added benefit, as Roy Thomas observes in his informative and lively introduction, was that a comic book like that could showcase less prominent characters, test whether they might be popular enough to warrant further use.

So get busy! Get that new comic book, dubbed The Justice Society, out of our collective imaginations and onto the newsstands!

And so they did. The JSA, at first a quarterly, was soon promoted to bi-monthly status and continued to grace the nation’s magazine venues until 1951, when comic books as both popular entertainment and profit centers entered their dark age, a period when they barely survived as publishing enterprises.

That tale, sad though it is, had a happy ending when comic books, and particularly superhero comic books, were reinvented and began flourishing. (You wouldn’t be reading this if that hadn’t happened.) The JSA came back somewhat altered and rechristened The Justice League of America.

The JLA was one of my first assignments when I went to work for what had, by then, become DC Comics. I don’t think I knew the size of the bite I’d taken when I took the job. It can be challenging to conjure up a worthy opponent for a single super person and thus provide conflict and drama and all that good stuff. Writing a book like JLA the writer has to provide woes for seven or eight or more. But, as the volume we’re discussing proves, writers and artists have been doing that, doing it entertainingly, for three quarters of a century.

Once a year, Julie Schwartz would revive the JSA, who, you will be happy to know, were living in another dimension, and team them with their modern counterparts. I did one of those stories, which is how I come to be represented in the volume we’re discussing and why I got copies of it, and there you go, full and unnecessary disclosure.

I’m glad to see my work in such righteous company.