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Martin Pasko’s THE ALBATROSS (DC Comics, 1975)

“Veteran comics writer Martin Pasko passed away on May 10, 2020. This reminiscence of a lost Pasko work was written in Pasko’s memory. It appeared at Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) on May 14th of 2020.”

When I heard the news that the comics community had lost writer Martin Pasko, one of the first things that came to my mind was The Albatross, a DC Comics superhero he was writing circa 1975 or so. 

It was an odd thing to think of so immediately in the moment. I have great fondness for a lot of Pasko’s work, including some of his Superman stories, his ’70s run on The Metal Men, his Doctor Fate, and his scripting (with Alan BurnettPaul Dini, and Michael Reeves) on the 1993 animated feature film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, which may be the single best Batman movie ever made. Given Pasko’s impressive resumé, The Albatross seems a pretty unlikely thing for anyone to remember when remembering Marty Pasko.

Especially considering the fact that The Albatross was never published.

The Albatross was a phantom project. Not only did it fail to see print, it was never even announced as forthcoming (unlike, say, Gerry Conway‘s also-unpublished Ninja the Invisible), probably never assigned to an artist, possibly never even completed by Pasko. The only reference I’ve ever seen made to The Albatross was in my own work, specifically in an Amazing Heroes article on humorous superheroes I wrote in the ’80s. You say you’ve never heard of The Albatross? It’s okay. Neither has anyone else.

The only reason I know anything at all about The Albatross is because I attended the Super DC Con in New York City, February 1976. I was 16 years old, and I was in my Heaven: meeting comics creators (including Jerry Siegel and Joe ShusterJerry RobinsonBob Kane, and my heroes at the time, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams), mingling with other fans, attending panels, watching old superhero movies, competing in a trivia contest hosted by E. Nelson Bridwell, and cruising the dealers’ room. It was an amazing experience, and I wish someone would publish an in-depth retrospective of that convention. Decades later, when my Dad was in hospice care and trying to express his gratitude for a strawberry milkshake I’d brought for him to enjoy, I joked to him, “C’mon, Dad–remember that time you took me to New York for the DC Comics convention? I’d say I still you a little more than a strawberry milkshake.” Dad smiled, and enjoyed his milkshake.

I attended nearly every panel the Super DC Con offered. If I missed anything, it wasn’t because I hadn’t tried. Lacking a costume for the costume parade, I joined in plainclothes, claiming I was supposed to be DC writer Elliot S! Maggin, who had written himself into a Justice League Of America story the previous summer. Although I was a hit, convention organizer Phil Seuling apologized that he couldn’t give me a share of the costume parade prize because I wasn’t, y’know, actually wearing a costume. That was fine; my prize was being congratulated by DC’s new publisher Jenette Kahn (who seemed genuinely amused as she shook my hand) and Maggin himself, who said that Kahn had just told him that, because of his JLA appearance, his name and likeness now belonged to DC. I’m not sure he was kidding. 

But I digress. Let’s get to The Albatross.

It was at one of the panels that the subject of The Albatross was introduced. I wish I could remember which panel it was, and who the participants were. I’m pretty sure writer Bob Rozakis was there–I have a vague memory of him responding to a friendly barb from his wife, with a “Thanks, Laurie!”–and maybe Maggin, Denny O’Neil, and Cary Bates? That would indicate it was the writers’ panel, which would have been a logical setting for Martin Pasko to talk about The Albatross.

I do remember Pasko looking around the audience to be sure a specific, unnamed DC editor wasn’t in the ballroom at the moment. Satisfied that the coast was clear, Pasko smiled and proceeded to tell us the brief saga of this DC Comics character no one would ever know.

The concept of The Albatross had been the brainchild of a DC editor. Pasko would not say which editor it was. Pasko was given the assignment to develop The Albatross, possibly as a back-up feature. In the editor’s premise, The Albatross was secretly a prison inmate, either a man convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed, or a former felon who’d seen the error of his ways (I forget which). Every night, as his fellow convicts were snug in their beds, with visions of reasonable doubt dancing in their heads, the prisoner we call The Albatross would break out of prison–every night–don his mysterious costume to battle the forces of evil, presumably succeed in boppin’ the bad guys, and then return to his cell, his nocturnal missions undetected by unsuspecting prison guards. Enter: The Albatross! BEWARE THE ALBATROSS!

Spine-tingling, right? No?

Yeah, Pasko also thought it was ridiculous.

But an assignment was an assignment. Pasko almost certainly was the one who named our jailbird protagonist The Albatross, and as he wrote the strip, he found he could not take it seriously. He decided to play up the absurdity, go for subtle laughs, a nudge in the ribs rather than a leap over a tall building in a single bound. The editor still saw this Albatross as a straightforward costumed crimefighter, and he kept rejecting Pasko’s attempts as inadequate. You don’t seem to be getting the right feel for this, the editor told Pasko. One presumes that all involved finally acknowledged a dead end and moved on. The Albatross could escape from prison with ludicrous ease, but his comic-book exploits never saw the light of day.

Pasko smiled again as he concluded his story. Those of us in the small crowd giggled in appreciation. And that was the end of what I’m sure was history’s only public discussion of this DC hero called The Albatross.

Who was the DC editor that came up with the idea of The Albatross? I guess it could have been Julie Schwartz, the legendary and visionary curmudgeon who had given Martin Pasko the nickname “Pesky Pasko” back in the ’60s, when Pasko was a comics fan writing critical letters to the editor. I’m not convinced it was Schwartz, and I don’t think it was Murray Boltinoff or Joe Orlando. My gut thinks it was Robert Kanigher, a veteran and notoriously irascible writer and editor who could occasionally come up with batshit-crazy concepts (perhaps most notably The Black Bomber, a schizophrenic black superhero who was secretly a white racist in his civilian identity, with neither personality aware of the other one; that would have been embarrassing and horrible, but writer Tony Isabella convinced DC to scuttle plans for The Black Bomber, allowing Isabella the opportunity to create his own original [and now iconic] character Black Lightning.) But if it were Kanigher, and he wasn’t happy with the writing, why wouldn’t Kanigher have just written The Albatross himself?

So I don’t know. The Albatross’s secret daddy could have been Kanigher. It could have been Schwartz. It could have been Stan Lee…no, wait, it couldn’t have been Stan Lee. Schwartz? Kanigher? Someone else? We’ll never know the answer to that one. Pasko did get to use the Albatross moniker for a different character in the ’80s, when he was writing the great Nicola CutiJoe Staton character E-Man for First Comics. In a parody of Marvel‘s successful X-Men comics, Pasko named his Dark Phoenix lampoon–what else?–Dark Albatross. I’m sure I was the only E-Man reader ever to see that name, and to think immediately of an earlier, unrealized Albatross mentioned once–once–at a writer’s panel during a DC Comics convention in 1976.

As that 1976 writers’ panel adjourned, a still-smiling Pasko went over lunch plans with his friends and fellow writers. My recollection of him is fixed in place in that moment: a writer and fan filled with good humor, aware of himself, but not in an ironic way. That’s my mind’s picture of Martin Pasko, and it’s a happy image to me. Here’s to The Albatross. Here’s to Pesky Pasko. Godspeed Mark, and thank you for the memory.

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