Tagged: Robert Kanigher

John Ostrander: Suicide Squad Redux – The Dragon’s Hoard

It feels a little silly to be issuing a spoiler warning for a story that’s more than twenty years old but it’s entirely possible that there are folks out there who have never read the story described below. I’ll need to discuss some plot points and twists so if you don’t want to know ‘em, avoid this week’s column. Spoiler warning issued.

December 22 will see the publication of the seventh volume in the reprint series of my Suicide Squad, just in time for last minute holiday giving. See? Sometimes it does pay to wait until the last minute to shop.

This will probably be the penultimate volume in this reprint series as there are only a few more issues to gather. Kim Yale was once again my co-writer. I’m taking this opportunity to re-read these stories myself and over the next few columns I’ll comment on them, as I’ve done with some previous volumes.

The title tale is the biggest one in the volume but, as not unusual, is not the only story. The first one reprints issue 50 which was extra-sized. I’m of two minds about anniversary issues. Certainly, you want to celebrate the longevity of the given title but sometimes setting it up can throw off the whole pacing of the series. That happened with GrimJack and maybe the Spectre; you can wind up treading narrative water trying to get to an anniversary issue.

However, the Squad 50th issue worked.

Kim’s and my goal was to take as many story points that we had in the early days, especially issue 1, and re-work them into a new narrative. That can be difficult when you’ve spent as much time killing off your characters as Kim and I did. Basic background on the Squad; the series was created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru and ran for five issues of the Brave and the Bold. The first Squad was a team of four: leader Captain Rick Flag, medic Karin Grace, and scientists Jess Bright and Hugh Evans. Rick and Karin had fallen in love but felt compelled to keep it a secret since the two scientists were also in love with Karin. It could’ve gotten kind of kinky but this was 1959.

The element that I took for the new Squad was that the old one fell apart on a disastrous mission to Tibet. Bright and Evans found out about Rick and Karin and were pissed at being played for chumps. They died falling into a chasm during an attack by a Yeti. Karin had a breakdown and wouldn’t see Rick anymore.

Rick and Karin were both part of the new series but by issue 49 both had died. Rick would get better and return but for issue 50’s purposes, he was still dead. However, we revealed that they had a son; Rick was never aware of it and Karin blocked the boy’s birth from her memory during her breakdown.

The incident triggering the plot is that the boy has been kidnapped by a zombie like character named Koschei the Deathless. During the story, it’s revealed that Koschei is actually Jess Bright who had survived the fall into the chasm but loss his nose, lips, toes and fingers to frostbite before being rescued by the Chinese. He later winds up with the Russians where he becomes Koschei.

Unaware that both are dead, Jess wants revenge on Rick and Karin and, having run afoul of the new Squad since becoming Koschei he also wants them dead. To this end he has resurrected members of the Squad who were killed on missions by using mechanical implants at the base of their skulls. Oh, and I should mention that Koschei has also died but, using the same technology, walks and talks and plans terrible revenge.

So we have the Suicide Squad up against the Zombie Squad which makes for some fun visuals and match ups. The climax takes place in a fake Quraci airport that figured into the first story.

Yeah, it all does sound convoluted, but I think it all works in context of the actual story.

One of the flaws in issue 50 is that it concludes rather quickly without a lot of space for visuals but that’s a flaw I sometimes have as a writer; I don’t always pace everything as well as I might. All things considered, however, I think it is a good story and covers the anniversary tropes pretty well. It even ends with a surprisingly tender moment for Amanda Waller. It also gets this reprint off to a good start, I think, although you folks are the ones who have the real say.

We’ll continue this next week as we look at the next story or two. Ciao for now.

John Ostrander: Talking The Talk

So you had a story idea and you’ve worked it up into a plot. The characters are defined, you know who is doing what, the twists and turns and even the theme.

Now you have to put words into everyone’s mouths or, more precisely, into their word balloons. For some would-be writers, that’s where the wheels come off. How do you write dialogue? More importantly, how do you write good dialogue?

Let’s start with a basic: all dialogue is action. No one just speaks: they cajole, they explain, they confirm, they deny, they confront, they exalt, they exult, they attack, they defend, they lie and so on.  It is an active transitive verb. When a character speaks, they are doing something or attempting to do something. What’s important is not what the character is saying but what the character is doing or trying to do when they speak.  What does the character want, what goals are they trying to achieve? In short, what drives them? What is their motivation? What do they need? Not just want – need.

Dialogue has two main purposes: to move the plot along and/or to reveal character. Even exposition falls under the “move the plot along” rule.

Keep in mind that in comics, you have very little room for dialogue. Each panel has room for maybe two word balloons – three, if they’re small. Each word balloon has room for two to three lines tops. And you can’t do that in every panel; the reader will just see too many words and skip the page.

I’ve heard it said that comic book scripting is revealing character via newspaper headlines. So you have to be succinct with your verbiage.

Major Ostrander rule: when in doubt, cut it out. If they can (and do) cut Shakespeare, they can (and should) cut some of your lines. You should do it first. I’ve heard a story that legendary writer and editor Robert Kanigher, when he was writing Sgt. Rock, would stand on his desk and shout out the dialogue; if it sounded okay doing it that way, he figured it was right.

Once I delivered a GrimJack script to First Comics and, while editor Rick Oliver was going through it, I was schmoozing the rest of the office as I usually did. Rick came out to me with a page of script in his hand and the matching page of art. He looked at them, looked at me, and asked how much I was paid per page. I told him and then Rick noted “So on this page we’re paying you one hundred dollars for six words.”

“No,” I replied easily; “You’re paying me for knowing which words to leave off.” I offered to add more if Rick really felt it was necessary but he smiled, said he was just curious, and went back into his office.

When writing dialogue, you need to differentiate between characters. They are not all the same characters (even though all of them are you) and so should speak differently. Some people speak brusquely, some like the sound of their own voices. Some people try to over explain their reasons why they are doing what they’re doing; they feel that if you understood, really understood, you’d do things their way. I was told once by one such person that I wasn’t listening, to which I replied, “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m not listening.”

There is a cadence to how people speak and that’s especially useful if you’re trying to indicate a person has a foreign accent; there is a way of speaking, a certain order. Some movies can give you a wealth of accents to hear; Casablanca is a very good one. Listen and learn.

There’s a simple short-cut that can help you; cast your characters as if they were in an animated feature. Who would you cast as their voice? The nice part of this is that it doesn’t have to be an actor; it can be anyone whose voice you can hear in your mind – a friend, a relative, a co-worker, a politician and so on. They don’t have to be currently living, either; past or present will do.

Listen to your characters as well once you have their voices in your mind; they will not only tell you what to write but may take the plot off in a direction you hadn’t considered. Listen to them and go with them if they do that. There was a GrimJack story once where I refused to do that; I stubbornly stuck to the lines and the plot that I had already decided on. That s.o.b. Gaunt stopped talking to me for the rest of the issue; it was the hardest GrimJack script I ever attempted. I learned my lesson and haven’t done it since.

Listen to people all around you; what do they say and how do they say it? What do they not say? What is left unsaid? In art, negative space can help define the figure. In writing, the silences can define the character. When do they happen, why, and what happens as a result?

Don’t be “clever.” Dialogue should be entertaining, yes; that’s part of storytelling. However, when I encounter “clever” dialogue, it means the author is really trying to draw attention to him/herself. “See how clever I am? Isn’t that a great turn of phrase?” It draws the reader right out of the story and that’s a failure to communicate. There are many writers whose dialogue is clever but that’s not their purpose. Brian Michael Bendis is an example of someone who writes very clever dialogue but he is also a very very good writer because his first focus is story and characterization. He just happens to be clever as well.

Your dialogue can be contemporaneous; it can be elevated. Poetic or streetwise. What it has to do is serve the story and reveal the character.

That’s the job.

John Ostrander: They Grow Up So Fast

Suicide-Squad-Amanda-Waller

I’ve been watching DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow over on the CW. Among the characters that have been appearing on the show are Firestorm and Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Well, not so much Hawkman any more, maybe. I didn’t create those three characters but I certainly played with them a lot and, for a while, left my sticky fingerprints all over them. So it’s interesting watching manifestations of them in other media.

I’ll be experiencing that big time come August when the Suicide Squad movie hits the multiplexes. I created Amanda Waller and I defined characters like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang and it will be exciting to see how they translate for the screen. I hope.

None of the character portrayals will translate directly from the comics to movies or TV. I’m okay with that; none of them have so far. Different media have different needs. That’s why they’re called adaptations. The material is adapted from whatever the source was. My only question about any given adaptation is – how true is it to its roots? Did they get the essence of the character or the concept right? If you’re going to do Captain XYZ Man, there should be a resemblance to what makes up Captain XYZ Man. Right?

OTOH, I haven’t always done that and Suicide Squad itself is a good example. The comic was originally created for DC by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru; my version shared the title, a character or two, and some history with the original and not much else. Of course, as buddy Mike Gold pointed out in his excellent column this week, Kanigher may have gotten the title (and not much else) from a feature in a pulp magazine called Ace G-Man. What goes around comes around?

Amanda has appeared several times, including the TV show Arrow, lots of animated series, the Green Lantern movie, video games, the TV series Smallville, and probably more. I may need to double check my royalty statements. Any number of actresses have portrayed her and voiced her. She doesn’t always look the same. In Arrow and some of the comics, she’s built like a model. However, in all the variations I’ve seen there have been certain aspects that are kept – she’s female, black, and she’s ruthless as hell.

Even with other characters, I don’t always keep to how they were conceived. My version of Firestorm changed (evolved?) throughout my run. At one point when we decided he was a Fire Elemental (the Elemental idea was popular for a while starting with Alan Moore making Swamp Thing the Earth Elemental) and Ol’ Flamehead’s look was drastically altered, not always to universal approval.

Still, I think I kept to the essentials of the characters and, when I changed things, I kept within continuity as established although sometimes I picked and chose within the continuity.

All that said, I (mostly) enjoy seeing the variations and permutations of these characters. It’s like watching your kids grow up and moving away and seeing what they become. It’s not always what you expected but, hopefully, you can still see your DNA in them.

Mike Gold: Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Thievery

Brave and Bold 109 S&SThe 1950s were a time of great experimentation for comic book publishers. Retail outlets were disappearing and post-war military scale-backs undermined PX sales. Superman was kept alive by its massive television exposure, but virtually all other superhero comics were either gone or in deep trouble.

Necessity being the mother of invention, comics publishers back then had no choice but to try new ideas and concepts. Western comics were hit-or-miss; those that featured top-line movie stars or characters were doing okay, the others were sort of meh. Romance comics, teevee tie-ins and some funny animal books were selling. The horror and crime comics that had been keeping publishers such as EC, Harvey and Gleason in the money were being condemned by the media, camera-hungry politicians and sanctimonious self-appointed “experts.”

So until DC and Marvel finally succeeded in rejuvenating the superhero genre, experimentation was the watchword of that decade. And that brings me to the subject of Robert Kanigher.

Brtave and Bold 314 S&SThis man was a legend. A writer and editor, Bob was best known for creating or co-creating Sgt. Rock, the Metal Men (over a weekend, no less), the silver age versions of The Flash and Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy, Rose and Thorn, Ragman, the Viking Prince, Sea Devils, and Enemy Ace. On the other hand, Kanigher was also… well… according to Wikipedia: “Kanigher was as well known for his unstable personality and violent temper as he was for his brilliance as a writer.”

I can attest to this personally, even though we got along quite well. When he died in 2002, I phoned a major comics writer/artist, a decent, considerate and polite man with a fine sense of humor who was a student of Bob’s at the Joe Kubert School. He immediately let out a joyous rebel yell that could halt a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.

Kanigher also had a fantastic memory.

When DC Comics was searching for new ideas and formats, he came up with quite a few – and most of them were quite good. Some were brilliant. He started up a title called The Brave and the Bold which initially featured legendary white knight types such as The Silent Knight, the Golden Gladiator and the Viking Prince. In issue #25, he dumped the swordplay in favor of a new series, Task Force X – The Suicide Squad.

Ace G-ManThis Suicide Squad ran six issues before being retired to the Old Comic Book Characters’ Home. The name was resurrected by John Ostrander in the mid-1980s in the Legends mini-series, and that’s the concept that was in the Arrow teevee series and will be in the movie theaters in August.

But The Brave and the Bold was not where the Suicide Squad first met the public. In fact, The Brave and the Bold was not where the The Brave and the Bold first met the public.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, Street and Smith started up a weekly prose magazine on pulpwood paper featuring rip-roaring adventures. It was called Brave and Bold, and it ran for 429 issues. Not a bad run at all. Publisher of Nick Carter Weekly, Street and Smith went on to create The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger and many others.

The Suicide Squad is another matter. There was no such magazine under that name before Kanigher’s creation. However, The Suicide Squad was the very popular lead feature in Ace G-Man Stories. The G-Men (government men; the movies’ version of a highly idealized FBI) genre was very popular in our media and as far as the pulp era was concerned, The Suicide Squad was the leader of the pack. Created by Emile C. Tepperman (Operator 5, The Spider, Secret Agent X) the series ran from 1939 to 1943, when the host title was cancelled due to wartime paper shortages. All or almost all of these stories remain in print in anthologies and in electronic books.

Sky Devils PulpSo… did Bob Kanigher “borrow” these names? Let’s be fair: they were not under trademark, and publishers recycled titles all the time. If you don’t believe me, riddle me this: if Fawcett sold its characters to DC Comics, why does Marvel publish Captain Marvel? Hint: it’s not because of the word “marvel.”

One more thing. In 1960 Bob Kanigher and artist Russ Heath created a series for DC called “Sea Devils,” debuting in Showcase #27. Some think that, perhaps, Bob was inspired by the 1953 movie of the same name, starring Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson. Or, perhaps, Bob was inspired by the 1937 movie of the same name, starring Victor McLaglen and Ida Lupino. Or the 1931 movie of the same name, starring Molly O’Day and Edmund Burns.

Or maybe, just maybe, Bob’s encyclopedic memory stored the details of Sky Devils, a pulp series that ran from 1938 to 1940. That one was published by Martin Goodman, the man who, at that very time, was preparing to launch something called “Marvel Comics.”

Of course, that Sun Devils is not to be confused with DC’s Sun Devils, created by Gerry Conway and Dan Jurgens.

What goes around…