Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.My introduction to Batman, my favorite comic book character, came in the person of Adam West, star of the 1966-1968 Batman TV series; I wrote about that here, so we don’t need to cover all that again. For now, suffice it to reiterate that no TV series ever had as great and as lasting an impact on my life as did the campy, twice-weekly adventures of The Dynamic Duo in 1966.
But that’s just the first part of a first impression. Where did I go from there? Well, the massive nature of Batmania ’66 made the Caped Crusader as ubiquitous as The Beatles had been just two years before. There was so much Bat-merchandise everywhere you turned; the J.M. Fields department store had a small section devoted exclusively to Batman tie-in stuff, and I still have the Batman wastebasket I got there.
One of the most intriguing Batman products would have to be the bubblegum cards. There were two entirely different series of Batman cards; there was a series featuring stills from the TV show, capturing images of Adam West and Burt Ward capturing Gotham’s Most Wanted, and there was another series with painted, pulpy images of Batman and Robin battling their deadliest foes. Oh God, those painted cards were awesome, and I sprang for a complete set of reproductions a couple of decades ago. Those cards, with their hints of an unknown wonderland of Batman adventure, were my first teasing taste of (excuse the expression) a Batman beyond what I’d seen on TV.
(I recall a similar feeling of Bat-discovery in, I think, a tie-in from Hostess or some other sweet treat distributor, which carried images of Bat-villains I’d never seen, like The Fox, The Shark, and The Vulture; I got another sideways glance into Batman’s vast rogues gallery with coloring-book appearances by The Bouncer and Blockbuster.)
I can’t quite remember my first Batman comic book story. I have a vague memory of a battle with The Joker involving giant tubes of paint (which would have been from a 1966 Kelloggs promotion), and that may or may not have been my first. If not, then the honor probably goes to a 1966 Signet paperback, collecting Batman reprints in black-and-white. Most of the reprints were from the ’50s–I particularly loved a Joker story called “The Crazy Crime Clown!”–but the first story in that book was a reprint of Batman’s origin story by (uncredited) writer Bill Finger and (too-credited) artist Bob Kane, as it appeared in Batman# 1 in 1940 (except for, y’know, the expensive color part). I still have that paperback, and if that’s where my Batman comics-readin’ started, then I picked a hell of a great place for my Batman to begin.
Subsequently, the first bona fide Batman color comic book I owned was Batman # 184, purchased off the rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri in the summer of ’66. I’ve purchased a few more Batman comic books since then.
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-Op, Ray Paul, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, Vegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie Flowers, The Slapbacks, P. Hux, Irene Peña, Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave Merritt, The Rubinoos, Stepford Knives, The Grip Weeds, Popdudes, Ronnie Dark, The Flashcubes,Chris von Sneidern, The Bottle Kids, 1.4.5., The Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat, The Hit Squad, The Rulers, The Legal Matters, Maura & the Bright Lights, Lisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.
As the music portion of my formerseries Comics And LP Cover Cavalcade already split off into its own separate LP Cover Cavalcade, the comics portion also needs its own space. This inaugural entry of Comic Book Cover Cavalcade shares five DC Comics covers from the 1970s. ALL-STAR COMICS # 58 (January-February 1976)
When writer Gerry Conway left Marvel Comics for DC in the mid 1970s, one of his highest-profile assignments was this opportunity to revive All-Star Comics, which had been the home of comics’ original 1940s super-team, The Justice Society of America. Continuing its numbering from the final JSA issue of All Star Comics in 1951 (pretending All-Star Western # 58 and onward never happened), the new series initially soft-pedaled the old ’40s JSAers to focus on the three younger heroes–Batman‘s former partner Robin, former Seven Soldiers of Victory member The Star-Spangled Kid, and a buxom new character called Power Girl–who comprised the team-within-a-team referred to as The Super Squad. Conway script, Mike Grell cover, Ric Estrada pencils, and inks by the legendary Wally Wood helped get the new All-Star Comics off to a solid start. Conway returned to Marvel before long, but the series continued with style and distinction.
BATMAN # 253 (November 1973)
I was thirteen years old in 1973, and I was a big, big DC fan. The Batman was my favorite character, and you bet I insisted on calling him THE Batman. The Batman was a creature of the night, a dark avenger, not the campy crusader whose TV show hooked me on superheroes when I was a mere child of six. No! The Batman was serious stuff! You can look back now and smirk at my sanctimonious nerdiness, but I say to hell with you. I was having a grand old time, and I remember the comics of this period with great fondness. Writer Denny O’Neil was on a roll, having already given The Dark Knight a new classic adversary in Ra’s al Ghul; penciler Neal Adams and inker Dick Giordano provided sleek visuals that were as integral to the mood, setting, and storytelling as any word within the captions and balloons, and alternate penciler Irv Novick (also inked by Giordano) deserves credit for maintaining that style in the many issues Adams didn’t have time to draw. In Batman # 251, O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano had reintroduced The Joker in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!,” returning the character to the murderous roots of his debut in 1940’s Batman # 1. It is not an exaggeration to say that “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” influenced every single Joker story published since 1973.
And, a mere two issues later, The Batman got to meet his greatest inspiration, The Shadow. DC had licensed the character of The Shadow in hope of tapping into ’70s-era nostalgia for the pop culture playthings of the ’30s and ’40s. I was all in, as I read my Doc Savage paperbacks, watched The Marx Brothers on Saturday night TV late shows, listened to old adventure radio shows (including The Shadow) on the public station’s Radio Rides Again presentations, and devoured histories of comics, histories that taught me about the Golden Age of Comics in the ’40s, and even about the blood ‘n’ thunder pulp magazines that helped to sire those comics. Pulp magazines like The Shadow.
The Shadow was the biggest single influence on Bill Finger and Bob Kane when they created the character of The Batman in 1939. I knew that, so I was more than primed for The Shadow’s DC’s series (written by O’Neil), and absolutely psyched to see The Shadow finally meet his disciple in the pages of Batman # 253. Beneath an atmospheric cover by Mike Kaluta (regular artist on DC’s The Shadow), the actual story by O’Neil, Novick, and Giordano could be viewed as anti-climactic, or even a cheat. The Shadow is an off-stage player in most of the tale, stepping out from the shadows only near its end. I didn’t care. I loved it without reservation, and I still do.
DC SPECIAL # 10 (January-February 1971)
If I had to pick my all-time favorite comics artist, I would acknowledge the above-mentioned Neal Adams and Wally Wood, plus (of course) Jack Kirby, and a long, long list that would include Dick Sprang, Carl Barks, Jack Cole, Alex Toth, Jim Aparo, and…listen, we’re gonna be here all night, and I haven’t even mentioned Marshall Rogers yet. But when I have to name just one, I usually say Nick Cardy.
And I don’t pick Cardy on the basis of most of the covers he cranked out as DC’s go-to cover guy in the early to mid ’70s. Those were fine, obviously, but his best work was his brief stint as the regular artist on the Batman team-up title The Brave And The Bold, his Teen Titans (especially his later issues), and his exquisitely-rendered Western series Bat Lash. Oh, and the gorgeous covers he drew for Aquaman.
And there’s also this gloriously atmospheric cover for DC Special # 10, dressing up a basic collection of 1950s cop and fireman stories, reprinted from old issues of Gang Busters and Showcase. Calling them basic isn’t meant as a put-down–I read this damned thing over and over when I was 11–but there’s nothing inside that could hope to match that dynamic Cardy cover.
SHAZAM! # 8 (December 1973)
The same pursuit of the nostalgia market that prompted DC to license The Shadow also led to the company licensing Superman‘s biggest sales rival from back in the ’40s, the original Captain Marvel. DC had effectively sued Fawcett Comics‘ Captain Marvel out of existence in the early ’50s. When licensing and attempting to revive Cap in 1973, DC Publisher Carmine Infantino‘s intent to restart the World’s Mightiest Mortal’s former comic book Captain Marvel Adventures was immediately thwarted by another, more powerful rival. Marvel Comics had trademarked the Captain Marvel name for its own unrelated use during the original Cap’s decades-long dormancy, and wasn’t about to allow DC to use it. DC went with the alternate title Shazam! instead. Each issue of DC’s Shazam! series featured vintage Cap reprints backing up the new adventures, and the reprints were…well, better. A lot better. The eighth issue was a 100-Page Super Spectacular collection containing only the old stuff, and I felt like it was a gift given to me directly from the Rock of Eternity. This was just magnificent.
SHOWCASE # 100 (May 1978)
DC’s original try-out book Showcase survived on newsstands from 1956 to 1970. It was a series that offered readers an opportunity to sample potential new series, with sales presumably determining which concepts would graduate to ongoing series and which would, y’know…not. Some point to Showcase # 4 (which introduced a brand-new superhero called The Flash, inspired by the 1940s character of the same name, but reimagined as something minty-fresh) as the beginning of comics’ Silver Age, and I would agree. Showcase produced a lengthy list of, well, showcases for both new characters introduced in its pages and already-existing characters given a shot at joining DC’s A-list. The series was revived briefly in the late ’70s, and that revival brought us Showcase # 100.
For this celebration, writers Paul Kupperberg and Paul Levitz teamed with artist Joe Staton in an attempt to craft a new adventure that would feature at least a cameo by each and every one of Showcase‘s stars and woulda-beens. Well, almost; Showcase # 43 had featured a reprint of a British adaptation of the James Bond novel and film Dr. No, and DC’s license to thrill with 007 had never been renewed. And I’m not positive, but I don’t think The Doom Patrol or Power Girl–the stars of the Showcase revival issues that preceded # 100–made it into the big party either.
But yeah, everyone else is represented, from Fireman Farrell through Manhunter 2070. Even Archie ripoff Binky, even Dobie Gillis and Maynard G. Krebs stand-ins Windy and Willy. We’ve got Bat Lash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Lois Lane, The Creeper, The Atom, Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The Teen Titans, Dr. Fateand Hourman, The Challengers of the Unknown, The Inferior Five, The Phantom Stranger, Jonny Double, Angel and the Ape, Tommy Tomorrow, The Hawk and The Dove, The Spectre, Anthro, Adam Strange, The Sea Devils, The Metal Men, Space Ranger, the pop group The Maniaks, Nightmaster, Cave Carson, Rip Hunter, B’wana Beast, Dolphin, Firehair, Johnny Thunder, and Jason’s Quest protagonist Jason. Maybe someone else I missed. Hell, maybe 007 is in there somewhere, hidden behind the rest of this large cast.
And it’s a blast. It’s goofy in all the right ways, serious where it needs to be, and never so serious that it gets in its own way. Forgive the comparison, but it’s like a Marvel movie in comics form, a lighthearted superhero epic that satisfies. It’s fun.
Quick! Someone go back to 1973 and tell my 13-year-old self that’s it’s okay for superheroes to be fun. Lighten up already, young man.
Hey! If you buy from Amazon, consider making your purchases through links at Pop-A-Looza. A portion of your purchase there will go to support Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do). Thinking Amazon? Think Pop-A-Looza. This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here. The many fine This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin’ pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project: Volume 1: downloadVolume 2: CD or downloadVolume 3: downloadVolume 4: CD or downloadWaterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio:CD or download Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 134 essays about 134 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).
My first rock ‘n’ roll posters were hand-me-downs, but they were choice hand-me-downs. When my sister went off to college in 1970, I assumed possession of her Beatles posters. These painted portraits of your John, your Paul, your George, and your Ringo remained on my wall while I was in middle school and high school, and left North Syracuse with me when I commenced my own rock ‘n’ roll matriculatin’ in the fall of ’77. The posters served me well on one occasion in ’76 or so, when WOLF-AM‘s Beatles Weekend offered a free Beatles LP to the first caller who could correctly identify the color of George Harrison’s eyes. A glance at the poster, a sprint to the phone in the kitchen, a hastily-dialed call to The Big 15 so I could blurt out BROWN!, and a copy of the Help! album was mine.
I also remember my sister having a Dylan poster–my first conscious exposure to Bashful Bobby Dylan’s name–but I think she must have taken that one with her on her journey to higher education. ‘Sfunny, because I remember much later mentioning Mr. Dylan to one of the guys in my dorm suite in the Spring of ’78; my suitemate glanced up at my Beatles portraits, and asked me which one was Dylan.
Although I plastered my walls with graven images in high school and college, I had relatively few commercial posters. In college, my cherished Beatles posters shared wall space with LP inserts (from the White Album, from The Beach Boys‘ Endless Summer, from a collection of movie sound bites by The Marx Brothers, and from records by The Heartbreakers, The Runaways, etc.), promo materials, maybe some comics art, Flashcubes gig flyers, magazine pages (including a poster ripped from a Bay City Rollers fan mag), a Molson Golden Ale poster, and a few Playboy centerfolds. The promo items–posters and flats–mostly came from Brockport’s Main Street Records, which offered such bonus bounty in its handy-dandy Free With Purchase! bin. Decorating was easy!
And I did pick up a few commercial posters along the way. I believe I got my KISS poster from my college friend Fred, who had outgrown KISS and wanted nothing further to do with the group. I bought a couple of posters upstairs at Syracuse’s Economy Bookstore, one featuring my boys The Sex Pistols and one starring my presumed future spouse Suzi Quatro. There was an awesome Batman poster I wanted, but never quite got around to buying. I did get a Suzanne Somers poster at Gerber Music; that was sorta puzzling, because although she was certainly cute, I didn’t have any particular thing for her, nor for her sitcom Three’s Company. Why a Suzanne poster, instead of, say, a Farrah Fawcett? No idea.
After college, I don’t recall ever putting up many posters in my apartments. I really wanted to get a poster of The Monkees circa the time of resurgent Monkeemania in ’86, but never saw one I thought appropriate. Now, decades later, I have but a few posters on my wall. There’s a Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns poster framed in my office, staring down a great framed Ramones poster I received as a gift. But that’s it, other than the framed two-page spread from my Goldmine interview with Joan Jett (autographed by Ms. Jett herself) and the framed artwork from Rhino Records‘ Poptopia! CDs, which Rhino gave me as a thank-you bonus for writing the liner notes to the ’90s Poptopia! disc, plus a few small items (a picture of Syracuse University basketball great Gerry McNamara, an autographed picture of Red Grammer, my Ramones wall clock, and a wall hanging my sister gave me decades ago, which reads A Creative Mind Is Rarely Tidy). That’s the sum total of wall decorations in my office at home.
I still have those same Beatles posters. They’re a bit tattered now, certainly worn, rolled up in a drawer because there’s no longer any point in even trying to flatten them or do a better job of preserving them. George Harrison’s eyes are still brown. The Pistols, KISS, and Suzanne Somers sheets are long gone; even Suzi Q has moved on. The Beatles remain. John. Paul. George. Ringo. Dylan must have been on holiday that day.
You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby!Our new compilation CD This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, Volume 4 is now available from Kool Kat Musik! 29 tracks of irresistible rockin’ pop, starring Pop Co-Op, Ray Paul, Circe Link & Christian Nesmith, Vegas With Randolph Featuring Lannie Flowers, The Slapbacks, P. Hux, Irene Peña, Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band Featuring Dave Merritt, The Rubinoos, Stepford Knives, The Grip Weeds, Popdudes, Ronnie Dark, The Flashcubes,Chris von Sneidern, The Bottle Kids, 1.4.5., The Smithereens, Paul Collins’ Beat, The Hit Squad, The Rulers, The Legal Matters, Maura & the Bright Lights, Lisa Mychols, and Mr. Encrypto & the Cyphers. You gotta have it, so order it here.
When you write fiction, you generally have to come up with names for your characters. Even in short fiction, you may find that referring to your players just as “He,” “She,” “That Dude,” or “Designated Pronoun” can grow tiresome over the course of your narrative. The expectation of names isn’t absolute, and I think I’ve done some effective short pieces where individuals are not given specific handles. More often that not, though, your baby needs a name.
Where do our fictional names come from? Well, that can be answered the same way we reply when someone asks us where we get our ideas: I dunno. The creative process is enigmatic, elusive, mysterious, and stubborn, and it tends to drool a lot. And it never picks up the damned bill at diners. It’s a right bastard, that creative process. Rather than risk our sanity trying to make sense of That Dude behind the curtain, maybe it’s best to just look at the results.
My first character creations were superheroes, scrawled on construction paper, notebook pages, and loose-leaf sheets when I was in elementary school. Skipping past some of the maybe less-than-entirely-original names I gave to a few of my characters–Batman, Kid Colt, The Avengers–I recall coming up with various good guys and bad guys named Rain-Hat Sam, Jem, The Power, The Bolshevik Bat, Gloppy, The Scarlet Redman, and Jack Mystery. (I re-visited Jack Mystery as an adult, and he coulda been a contender: The Jack Mystery Story.)
I continued to create and name more superheroes as the years passed, from Captain Infinity, The Trident, and Lawman through the more recent Eternity Man (with his co-star Jenny Woo). But let’s move past superheroes; most writers probably aren’t going to be using superheroes in their stories anyway. What are some of the more…civilian names I’ve concocted?
In sixth or seventh grade, I created a baseball player named Skip Keller. Ol’ Skip would have been the star of a series of sports comics, absolutely none of which I ever got around to writing. Slacker, thy name is CC. In 2019, I resurrected the Skip Keller name for an entirely different character, a former pop star turned songwriter and producer, in a short story called “Hitcore.” That story didn’t sell, but I like it a lot, so its day ain’t done yet. For “Hitcore,” I also named two other new characters: Mephisto Records receptionist Amber (no last name designated), and successful rock auteur Willington Blue. They’re all going back to the drawing board for some tweaking (maybe even in pursuit of a novel-length story), but the names will remain.
The Beat And The Sting was me pulling at the threads of an idea for a Green Hornet ’66 story. To The Green Hornet’s familiar supporting cast of Kato, Lenore “Casey” Case, and District Attorney Frank Scanlon, I added the rock group Ben Arnold & the Turncoats (with the lead singer’s real name Arnie Bennett, plus guitarist Roger Hartwell, bassist James Thomas, keyboardist Steve Davis, and drummer Tommy Hammond) and Century City crime boss Samuel “Sammy” Vincenzo. This story has potential, but no plausible path to publication at this time.
Terry Legend and Malice were names I gave to detective creations in the ’70s. Terry Legend was a parody character I used once in my high school literary magazine, and Malice (first name undecided) would have been the deadly-serious lead in an unwritten story called “The Children Of Malice.” I may yet use both names, but if Terry Legend does return, he won’t be a parody character anymore (his comic-booky name notwithstanding).
One of my favorite blog pieces here is Jukebox Express, a wholly fabricated account of a make-believe 1950s rock ‘n’ roll B-movie made by various fictional people we’ve seen in film, TV, comic books, etc. The players, from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Sophie Lennon and Gilligan’s Island‘s Ginger Grant through That Thing You Do!‘s Troy Chesterfield and My Favorite Year‘s Stan “King” Kaiser, all came with their names pre-attached. But I came up with the names of their characters: Rose “Mama” Mammamia, Kirby Lee, Archibald Toby, and Rocco “Death” Manzetti, respectively. My favorite among the names I slapped together here is Rocco’s moll Cupcake O’Hara, played by The Rocketeer‘s Jenny Blake. Yeah, I put a lot of work into this trifle.
The short stories I completed in 2019 contained but a few named characters. Of the unsold batch (in addition to “Hitcore”): “Dreaming Deadly” starred Sam and Billy, and an unnamed girl; “Sword Of The Chosen One” starred Flora and Anna; “Montie Pylon Finds His Holy Grail” starred Montgomery Pylon and Louise; and “The Greatest Thud Never Heard” included no named characters at all. The first story I sold last year, “Guitars Vs. Rayguns,” included no named characters. “The Picture Of Amontillado” starred Dorian Gray and Wild Edgar Poe, and I don’t think I’d get away with a claim of creating either of those names.
That leaves my loosely-connected Copperhead stories, two of which sold, one of which is pending, and a fourth is in its early stages of this-ain’t-ready-yet! Each of these feature a lead character–The Copperhead Kid, The Copperhead, Codename: Copperhead, and Copper–and not many other names: a Sheriff, a Deputy, Ma and Pa, an unnamed sister, Cody, a Director, a Director’s Wife, a family in peril, various goons and no-goodniks, and some assorted pronouns. Those were all the names needed to tell the story. For now.
TIP THE BLOGGER: CC’s Tip Jar! You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl airs Sunday nights from 9 to Midnight Eastern, on the air in Syracuse at SPARK! WSPJ 103.3 and 93.7 FM, and on the web at http://sparksyracuse.org/ You can read about our history here.
The many fine This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio compilation albums are still available, each full of that rockin’ pop sound you crave. A portion of all sales benefit our perpetually cash-strapped community radio project:
Volume 1: download Volume 2: CD or download Volume 3: download Volume 4: CD or download Waterloo Sunset–Benefit For This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio:CD or download Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 127 essays about 127 tracks, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).
My vulgar sci-fi rock ‘n’ roll comedy short story “Guitars Vs. Rayguns” hit comic book stores last week. Specifically, it appeared as a bonus feature in the pages of the AHOY Comics title Billionaire Island # 5. If you’re looking for a foul-mouthed, fast-paced, three-chord space farce, I humbly suggest you snag a copy of Billionaire Island # 5 and read “Guitars Vs. Rayguns.”
Written and sold last year, “Guitars Vs. Rayguns” was my first-ever fiction sale. I’ve sold a few more since then, but you never forget your first. Its publication casts my memory back to some previous failed attempts. Now, I do have some skimpy credits as a professional freelance writer of nonfiction. But I always wanted to write fiction, too.
And I especially wanted to write for DC Comics.
DC Comics was my first and most prevailing missed target as a would-be writer. My first attempt to break in at The Line Of Superstars was a handwritten Batman story, about which I remember nearly nothing. I began writing it while at my cousin’s wedding reception, probably around ’73 or so, maybe ’74 at the latest. The only detail I can recall of the story (other than the fact that it was simply awful) was that it was set in Syracuse, as The Batman had traveled here from Gotham to consult with local police regarding the shooting death of a city teenager. That part was based on a true story at the time, though apparently the Syracuse Police Department wasn’t really able to enlist Batman’s help. Stupid real world. I finished “writing” it, and mailed it off to the good folks at DC. I don’t believe I even received a rejection slip.
Roughly concurrent to that–perhaps even in the same mailing–I also concocted a handwritten story for the Shazam! comic book, starring the original Captain Marvel. The story may or may not have co-starred Plastic Man; as a reader and fan, I know I wanted these two lighter-hearted heroes to meet, but I don’t recall if ol’ Plas made an appearance in my Captain Marvel mini-epic. The story itself concerned Captain Marvel’s arch nemesis Dr. Sivana devising a way for his equally-evil son Sivana, Junior to become the super-powered villain Captain Sivana. Just as Billy Batson’s magic word “SHAZAM!” transformed the young Batson into Captain Marvel, Sivana, Junior’s shouted “SIVANA!” changed him into Captain Sivana. Hero and villain fought to a standstill, until Captain Marvel suddenly veered off and challenged his evil foe to follow him to Savannah, Georgia to continue the fight; confused, Captain Sivana repeated, “Savannah, Geor…?!” and instantly changed back into mortal form. Savannah is a homophone for Sivana. I am so damned clever. Captain Marvel zipped back, slapped a gag on Junior, and carted the lot of those miscreants off to the hoosegow. The folks at DC were speechless. I never heard back on this one either.
Around 1975 (I think), I tried again, this time with a full script. Typewritten, too! “The Overtime Crimefighter!” showed a typical day (and night) in the busy life of The Batman. I think I still have this one somewhere. I don’t remember much of it, other than Batman systematically dismantling my fictional version of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that had kidnapped and brainwashed heiress Patty Hearst. I am nothing if not topical. Of course, “topical” ain’t quite the same as “not terrible,” and “The Overtime Crimefighter!” earned me a form-letter rejection.
But I would not be deterred! I was far too oblivious for that. My friend Mike DeAngelo was a very good artist, and I thought we could collaborate professionally. I worked up another complete Batman script, “Nightmare Ressurection!” It was a sequel to a classic Batman story from 1966, “Death Knocks Three Times!,” reviving a villain called Death-Man, unseen since his one and only appearance in Batman # 180 in ’66. My story was grim, frenetic, and nonsensical. Not even Mike’s art samples could save this from rejection.
After “Nightmare Ressurection!,” I took some time off for college and–believe it or not!–girlfriends. Yep, man of the world, that’s me. In the early ’80s, I tried to create a theoretically original character called Captain Infinity. It was, frankly, not thought through at all, but it was intended as a cosmic tale of a prince from a far galaxy renouncing his throne and fleeing his responsibilities; his escape route brought him to Earth, and hijinks ensued. I wrote a synopsis and introductory pages for the pilot story, “The Splitting Of Infinity!,” and sent it off to resolutely unimpressed DC staffers. I don’t blame ’em a bit.
I tried a few more times with DC in the ’80s. I submitted a plot treatment for another new character, Lawman, designed to be the resident, non-powered local hero in a crime-ridden urban neighborhood. Lawman was meant to be a superhero version of a neighborhood watch program, with one guy playing the role of masked hero, backed up by a small network of friends and allies determined to take their city blocks back from the thugs and ne’er-do-wells. I also submitted treatments for a couple of existing DC properties. One of these was a story about Green Arrow, stuck on monitor duty aboard the Justice League‘s satellite, dealing unexpectedly with an attack from Mala, an obscure Kryptonian bad guy whom Superman defeated in the ’50s. Another was a Justice League story called “The Trial Of Dr. Light!,” which would have introduced a new supervillain group called The Predators. My memory of The Predators is sketchy, but I know I intended them to be a team that worked together like the good guys would, without the back-biting and betrayal that characterized most groups of honorless thieves. One of The Predators was named The Miracle Worker, and his schtick was a device used to tap into other dimensions, including a solid dimension that allowed him to create floating chunks of dense matter upon which he could effectively walk on air. The female Predator Deathsong, who was The Miracle Worker’s beloved sister, was able to destroy people, property, even planets with her singing–kinda like Mariah Carey. There were two more members of The Predators, but I remember nothing else beyond the fact that it was all very, very ’80s, and DC rightly passed on the lot.
Those Green Arrow and Justice League treatments were submitted alongside one more original character pitch, intended for DC’s New Talent Showcase book. That character was called The Trident, a World War II-era super-scrapper I envisioned as an answer to the unanasked question, “What if Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had created a two-fisted black superhero in the ’40s?” That question remains unasked and unanswered. My treatment for The Trident’s debut in “A Trident Glows In Brooklyn!” was a preposterous mess about a black police officer working his Brooklyn beat circa 1942, and being granted super-abilities by some cosmic do-gooders called The Men Of The Trident. No, I don’t think it made any sense either. Writer Roy Thomas had recently introduced a black hero called Amazing-Man in the pages of his WWII Justice Society book All-Star Squadron, and I wanted The Trident to be the second black superhero retroactively placed in that 1940s DC milieu. I viewed The Trident’s racial identity as incidental, which may have been foolish; but I liked the idea of a hero who just happened to be a black guy, just as The Guardian and the Silver Age Green Lantern (the two overriding influences on my concept of The Trident) just happened to be white guys. Foolish or not, someone at DC felt it wasn’t necessary to reject it outright. The letter accompanying my spurned ‘n’ returned Green Arrow and JLA proposals noted that The Trident was being forwarded to the editor of New Talent Showcase for further consideration.
That was 1985, and it was the last I heard from DC. But it’s as close as I ever came to achieving my dream of writing for DC Comics.
(I did write one more complete story using DC characters, a pulp short story starring The Batman and Aquaman. I never submitted it to DC, but I like it a lot, and never tire of pointing folks in its direction: The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze.) And while I never did break in at DC, I have now sold four short stories to AHOY, and I’ve cashed the paychecks for each of them. Call me a late bloomer. I started this as a teenager. I’m still doing it. More to come.
Sugary breakfast cereals! Man, I loved that stuff when I was a kid in the ’60s, and no silly notion of healthier eating has ever really changed that. A bowl of some corporate variant of Sugar-Frosted Sugar Bomb Sugar Explosions! was a perfectly acceptable dessert option for me when I was younger, and it’s still one of my go-to sweet treats decades later. I don’t recall having an awful lot of allegiance to one particular cereal over others. Maybe Quisp, because of the comic-book vibe of Jay Ward‘s TV commercials pitting the extraterrestrial imp Quisp against subterranean superhero Quake. Quisp and Quake. I’m told they were the same cereal in different shapes and textures, but don’t even try telling that to six-year-old Carl in 1966. Little Carl liked Quake. Little Carl loved Quisp.
Beyond that, though, I was positively promiscuous in my ardor for cereals. I tried and generally enjoyed them all. Kellogg’s OKs, with Yogi Bear on the box. Sugar Smacks. Sugar Pops. Sugar Crisp (later Super Sugar Crisp, with a desperate crack-addict cartoon bear wailing, Can’t get enough of Super Sugar Crisp!).Sugar Frosted Flakes. Sugar-Sparkled Twinkles. Rice Krinkles. Puffa-Puffa Rice. Cocoa Puffs. Cocoa Krispies. Ka-Boom. Lucky Charms. Clackers. King Vitaman. Count Chocula. Frankenberry. Cap’n Crunch. Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries. Cap’n Crunch’s Peanut Butter Crunch. Apple Jacks. Trix. Fruit Loops. Frosty O’s. I confess I never cared for Life (sorry, Mikey!), nor for banana-flavored Wackies, and nothing referred to as granola ever appealed to me. I kinda dug Rice Cream Flakes. I could add sugar to Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies if I had to, but why bother with adding sugar when there were already large factories geared to the task of adding the sugar for me? See, that’s American efficiency! The variety packs were cool, feeding–literally feeding!–the wanton nature of my cereal infidelity. You could empty the contents of a little cereal box into a bowl, just like you did with its bigger brother boxes, or you could slit the little carton, add milk, and gulp it down right out of its miniature package. More American efficiency.
As an added bonus, specially-marked boxes of Honey Combs or Alpha-Bits occasionally came with an actual, playable cardboard record for prototypical pop kids like me to cut out and groove with on the ol’ Close-N-Play. My small cache of cereal records is long gone now, but at one point I had little sweet-smelling sounds from The Monkees, The Archies, and Bobby Sherman. I tell ya, Murray the [special] K had nothing on Post Cereal.) Eventually, as a result of changing standards and the concerns of consumer watchgroups, the offensive word sugar was banished from cereal. I blame Watergate, or Ralph Nader. The cereals were still cavity-inducing gateways to reckless ricocheting and puttin’ on a few pounds, but at least American youth had been saved from the evil of the S-word. When did that Flintstones cereal, Fruity Pebbles, come out? The ’70s, right? I think so. That eventually became the top of my sugar pops, maybe by the time I was in high school, definitely by the time I graduated from college in 1980. Loved the stuff. It’s theoretically possible that my yen for Fruity Pebbles was enhanced by whatever else I was doing that seemed to work up a sudden, urgent appetite. Red-eyed and ravenous. Don’t judge.
I was also into Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Crispy Wheats And Raisins. In 1989, at the still-immature age of 29, the release of the Batman movie prompted me to buy a box or several of a new Batman cereal, which came packaged with a Batman piggy bank. I still have the bank, citizen, and a 1966 Batman cereal bowl to go with it.
Over the years, I’ve developed a preference for flaky cereals, probably to match my flaky personality. I still require my cereal to be sweet. I will occasionally dabble in–believe it or not–granola, which my wife likes, and which I’ve grown accustomed to. I like some of the seasonal Pumpkin Spice cereals that seem to horrify so many folks; I’m especially fond of Pumpkin Spice Frosted Mini-Wheats. I am as God made me.
But more often than not, my cereal choice trends to flakes. Vanilla Almond Special K was my Fave Rave for a while. Now, it’s Raisin Bran Crunch. God, I adore Raisin Bran Crunch. I rarely have it for breakfast–breakfast for me is usually peanut butter on a bagel, consumed after I get to work–but it is often my dessert. I’m good with that. Raisin Bran Crunch! After all these decades of cereal infidelity, it looks like I’m finally ready to settle down. Now: ask me about Danish Go-Rounds.
I’m not sure exactly when I wrote my first letter to a comic book editor. I know I wrote a letter to DC Comics in the summer of 1970, when I was ten years old, asking if the good folks there would be willing to send me a copy of Superboy # 129 as a reward for bypassing fifth grade on my way to sixth grade that fall. Presumptuous? Duh. My letter did not merit a prompt response. I don’t think it was my very first attempt at a “Dear Editor,” but it’s the earliest I can remember with any precision. If there were indeed earlier missives, they were also inquiries about securing elusive back issues from DC, albeit with a promise of appropriate payment. I got yer twelve cents; I got yer twelve cents right here.
In the ’60s and into the early ’70s, I was a near-insatiable fan of comic books, particularly superhero comic books, particularly DC and Marvel superhero comic books. I also read books from Charlton, Archie, Harvey, Gold Key, Dell, and later from Atlas and Warren. Besides my cherished costumed crusaders, I read funny animal, war, Western, humor, monster, and eventually some horror, too. I confess to occasionally peaking at romance books, because the girls were cute (and the artwork often gorgeous). Sad Sack. Where Monsters Dwell. Star Spangled War Stories. The Mighty Marvel Western. Forbidden Tales Of Dark Mansion. Tomb Of Dracula. Uncle Scrooge. Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos. The Lone Ranger. The Phantom. The Phantom Stranger. Master Of Kung Fu. Vampirella. The Scorpion. Archie’s Pals & Gals. Dennis The Menace. The Super Cops. Tarzan. Conan The Barbarian. Fruitman, God help me. Plop! Spoof. Doomsday + 1. I read ’em all, and loved ’em all, right alongside my Justice League Of America and Avengers.
By the time I was 15 (and probably earlier), I was identifying myself specifically as a DC Comics fan. I continued to buy, read, and enjoy Marvels and others, for sure, but my primary allegiance was to the boys at 909 Third Ave and (later) 75 Rockefeller Plaza. Why DC? Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, for starters. The work that writer O’Neil and artist Adams did on Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman (the latter often ably penciled by the underrated Irv Novick instead of Adams, all of it inked to stunning effect by Dick Giordano) just knocked me out, and the afterglow of that stuff kept me in DC’s thrall. I dug Jack Kirby‘s Fourth World stuff, Len Wein‘s scripting on JLA, editor Joe Orlando‘s stewardship of Adventure Comics, O’Neil with Mike Kaluta on The Shadow, the return of the original Captain Marvel in DC’s Shazam!, and the plethora of vintage reprints in DC’s 100-Page Super Spectaculars. I still loved Marvel, but I was clearly a DC guy.
Which, I guess, is why all of my letters of comment went to DC books. As adolescence and early teens brought me a sense that I might want to become a writer, I sought the recognition and ego-stroke of seeing my name in print in DC Comics letter columns. I evolved from my previous letters asking how I could track down copies of The Spectre‘s 1966 appearances in Showcase to attempting fannish praise and pithy commentary. My reach far exceeded my grasp, and my hand-scrawled drivel was justifiably ignored by DC’s editorial staff.
(I was only, like, twelve or thirteen when I began writing these letters in earnest, but I cringe to look back on them now. No physical copies survive, thank Rao, but I remember the sheer pimply cluelessness I exhibited therein. I wrote a letter to The Brave And The Bold‘s editor Murray Boltinoff, demanding that he explain his editorial policies to me, ‘cuz I di’n’t like his and B & B writer Bob Haney‘s disregard for continuity. I recall a letter to JLA which casually used profanity to make this immature soul seem mature. I signed off most of my letters with “Thanx,” an attempt to create a signature gimmick for what I hoped would be an abundance of published letters of comment. Not a one of them saw print, nor did they deserve to see print. I cringe at their memory, and recognize them as the work of a square-peg kid in dire need of a girlfriend.)
I did begin to receive some form letter replies, and some form letters with annotation added. I recall a reply to a heartfelt letter I’d written to Batman editor Julie Schwartz, begging that The Batman’s atmospheric noir adventures never again succumb to the campy approach of the mid ’60s. Some time after that, our local hero Mailman brought me a letter ostensibly from The Batman hisself: a form letter with a classic Carmine Infantino Batman drawing and a note “Thanks for your nice letter, from The Batman.” A more personalized postscript was typed in following The Batman’s signature: “…who will eschew camp like cyanide from now on, rest assured!” Cool! Plus, I learned a new word with “eschew.” I figured this meant my letter would soon see print on an imminent Letters To The Batman page, but it was not to be. I guess a letter from The Batman was all the recognition I required. Thanks, citizen!
Middle school passed by. High school commenced. I continued to buy and read comics, to try to write comics, and to write letters to the comics’ editors. I walked home each day after school, and often made a side trip to the nearby Gold Star Pharmacy to see if any new comics were in. A pretty girl from my school worked there, but I never bothered trying to flirt with her while buying my comics–what would have been the point?–and she remained friendly and professional. Yvonne. Not her real name. One day during the Spring ’75 semester, I stopped at Gold Star for my weekly fix. Among the haul was Superman # 289, and that contained my first published letter of comment.
Over the friggin’ moon, man!
The letter itself was perhaps not much less embarrassing than my earlier, unpublished attempts. But no matter! Though it was just a silly letter gushing about how great Superman # 277 had been with its dazzlingly clever doppelgangers of Ernest Hemingway and Mason Reese–a combination one would rarely see otherwise–it was technically my first nationally-published piece of writing. It was a piece of something all right, but I was thrilled.
And again: no, you get a life.
I don’t think I showed it to Yvonne at the drug store, though I did show her a subsequent letter published in Adventure Comics # 444. She was very polite. Somewhere in there, a letter in The Brave And The Bold # 120’s letter column mentioned in passing that “Carl Cafrelli” wanted to see Batman team with The Shadow, a request I do not recall making, but probably did. I don’t know how many more letters of comment I wrote, but I do know I was trying to concentrate more and more on my own writing (and my collection of rejection slips from DC), so my letterhacking likely petered out around this time.
Then it was off to college. Nascent independence. An illusion of maturity. GIRLS! Success with girls, even. And, y’know, punk rock. I continued to read comics well into my freshman year at Brockport, 1977-78, but finally abandoned my four-color friends when Steve Englehart stopped writing Batman in Detective Comics; everything that came after that was a disappointment to me, so it was time to quit.
I mean, after I wrote one more letter.
My final letter of comment of the 1970s appeared in Detective Comics # 479, extolling the virtues of what Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers had done with The Batman, a short run that remains my all-time favorite series of Batman stories (even above O’Neil and Adams). With that, I was done with comics for the remainder of my college career.
(My love of comics did help me snag one little bonus perk in college. No, it wasn’t a girl, though–oddly enough–my ostensibly hilarious impression of former DC Comics star Jerry Lewisdid somehow convince a girl I already knew that I was suddenly irresistible. Ah, if Yvonne coulda seen me then…but I digress. During my freshman year, I wrote about comics and other topics in my assignments for Dr. Burelbach’s Popular Fiction class. The following September, I wanted to get into a Fiction Workshop reserved for upperclassmen, so this mere sophomore had to plead his case to that course’s instructor, Dr. Fitzgerald. Dr. Burelbach happened to be there in Dr. Fitzgerald’s office when I arrived, so I mentioned that I’d taken his Pop Fic class the previous semester. This made for a much shorter interview than I was expecting. Fitzgerald turned to Burelbach and said, What do you think, Fred? Burelbach nodded toward me and said, Well, he’s a brilliant writer. Fitzgerald turned back to me, smiled, and said, All right, you’re in. Score one for the good guys.)
I returned to comics after graduating (early) from college in 1980. My return was slow and tentative at first, but eventually resumed with a fervor to match the fannish enthusiasm of my adolescence. In the ’80s, I had a few letters published in Green Lantern and/or Green Lantern Corps (when Englehart was writing it) and in Batman (when Doug Moench was writing it), and I wrote an unpublished rant complaining about gratuitous violence in Justice League Of America. I started freelancing for the fan magazine Amazing Heroes in 1984, and I didn’t write many letters of comment after that. I had one published in an issue of The Power Of Shazam! in the ’90s (even though I didn’t intend it as a letter of comment, just a note to accompany my request for Mr. Mind‘s Venusian Decoder Card), and finally my first and only published letter to Marvel Comics in 2016’s Invincible Iron Man # 11. Marvel still has letters columns in its books; DC does not. I read ’em both anyway.
But I’ve always been a DC guy at heart. I have the letters to prove it.
The Everlasting First: Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
The late Nicola Cuti is one of six posthumous recipients of the 2020 Bill Finger Award, honoring comic book writers who created a body of work that has not received the recognition it deserves. The award is named for Bill Finger, the long-uncredited co-creator of Batman. Cuti joins Virginia Hubbell Block, Leo Dorfman, Gaylord DuBois, Joe Gill, and France Edward Herron as this year’s slate of honorees. My favorite Cuti work was a superhero called E-Man, originally published by Charlton Comics in the ’70s.The Charlton Comics line eschewed superheroes after the demise of its Action-Hero line in the late ’60s. By the early-to-mid ’70s, Charlton’s only superhero book was The Phantom, plus Popeye if you wanna stretch the superhero tag to broader parameters. Revivals of Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Peacemaker, Judo Master, and Peter Cannon…Thunderbolt were unlikely, and it was equally unlikely that Charlton would create any new costumed heroes to take their place. Charlton editor George Wildman was amiable, but firm: superhero books did not sell for Charlton. So the 1973 appearance of two new action series from Charlton was, to say the least, unexpected. Yang was a martial arts series, so that made commercial sense amidst the frenzy of the kung fu craze. But there was also a new superhero book–a quirky, energetic, unique superhero book, drawing more inherent inspiration from the Golden Age charm of Plastic Man or the original Captain Marvel than from anything else DC or Marvel was doing at the time–but it was undeniably a superhero book, a bona fide Charlton superhero book. It was E-Man, created by writer Nicola Cuti and artist Joe Staton.
For most of these entries in The Everlasting First, I’ve been able to call to mind some specifics about when, where, and how I first became aware of the pop subject at hand. But my initiation into E-Man fandom is a jumble of tangled, thorny, conflicting memories. E-Man debuted at a time when I was become ever more active in seeking out new comic-book superhero thrills; it was a little before the short-lived Atlas Comics line, so Charlton’s return to the superhero wars stood out even more. I think I remember purchasing an issue of E-Man (and definitely an issue of Yang) at a convenience store in Clifton Park. I remember a coverless E-Man scored at Van Patten’s Grocery in North Syracuse. Later on (1974? ’75?), while traveling with family from Southwest Missouri to the Florida panhandle, I know I bought an issue of E-Man during a pit stop somewhere in Arkansas. How did I first hear of E-Man? What was the first issue I saw, and/or the first I read? That memory is lost. All I can tell you is this: however I came on board, I was an E-Man fan instantly. I tracked down all the back issues, bought each new issue, and was crushed when it was cancelled. Superhero books did not sell for Charlton. E-Man deserved a much, much better fate. This book was simply unlike anything else on the stands at the time. Jim Hanley‘s Captain Marvel pastiche Goodguy came closest, but that was a black-and-white strip that appeared sporadically in fanzines (and I would really love to see that stuff collected in book form!); DC’s Shazam! (starring the actual Captain Marvel hisself) never quite gelled, and Simon & Kirby‘s The Sandman was weird and kinda fun, but still more weird than fun. By contrast, E-Man sparkled with the positive energy promised by its hero’s insignia:
(And E-Man’s constant companion Nova Kane was the sexiest character in mainstream comics in the mid-’70s. I mean, sure, she was an exotic dancer, and that reinforced her pulchritudinous appeal. But her comic book appearances somehow avoided pandering for the most part. Nova was never, ever portrayed as any kind of bimbo or sexpot, and was usually the smartest and most sensible person in the room at any given moment. She was capable, and in control, simultaneously good-natured and wordly. Nova was the heart of E-Man.)
E-Man lasted for a mere ten issues at Charlton. Hard-boiled private eye Michael Mauser was introduced in E-Man # 3; presumably intended as a one-off character, Mauser eventually became a key member of the E-Man cast, and has appeared in solo adventures as well (initially as a back-up strip in Charlton’s Vengeance Squad). Nova acquired super-powers in E-Man # 8; I thought this detracted from the engaging interplay of the grounded, sensible, street-wise Nova and the cosmically naive E-Man, but I grew accustomed to the idea over time. And I did have time to grow accustomed to the idea; First Comics purchased the rights to E-Man from Charlton in the early ’80s, and began a new series of E-Man adventures. Joe Staton returned to the art chores, but Cuti was unavailable; his replacement, Marty Pasko, had done some fine work for DC (including a delightfully goofy run on The Metal Men, with art by Staton), but his E-Man didn’t seem quite right to me. Cuti returned to his co-creation with First’s E-Man # 24. First Comics withdrew from the comics biz years ago, but E-Man, Nova, and Mauser have continued to pop up from time to time from various publishers. One of these days, I need to go back and re-read the lot of ’em. And I’m delighted that there were a few new latter-day adventures of E-Man by Cuti and Staton published within the past few years in the Charlton Neoseries The Charlton Arrow. Nicola Cuti passed away in 2020. The work lives on. You can’t destroy energy.
Comics is a visual medium. But no matter how dazzling the individual images, how pretty the pictures, how powerfully the lines have been drawn, the story is what’s at the heart of it all. Without a story, all we have are pinup pages. Maybe they’re great pinup pages. But it’s not really comics without a story. Writer and artist. You need both to create comics.
Sometimes the writer and the artist are one and the same, from Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman to Carol Lay. More often (especially in commercial comics), there is a division of labor. The writer writes, the artists–usually more than one artist–pencil, ink, and letter, and also color if the work’s not for black-and-white publication. When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to be one of the writers. I wanted to be like Dennis O’Neil.
Dennis O’Neil had been a journalist from Missouri before breaking into comics as a writer in the ’60s. O’Neil initially wrote for Marvel Comics, then for Charlton, and began writing for DC Comics in 1968. It was at DC that O’Neil made his name.
I’m not sure of when I first became aware of O’Neil, nor can I identify which comic offered my first exposure to his work. Maybe it was in Beware The Creeper, or possibly Justice League Of America, neither of which would be among my favorite O’Neil runs. There was also his underrated work on Wonder Woman, chronicling the adventures of a de-powered Amazon Princess. I can tell you I loved his early ’70s work on Superman, the “Kryptonite Nevermore!” run that moved Clark Kent out of The Daily Planet to new duties as a TV newsman. O’Neil brought an unexpected sense of verisimilitude to his portrayal of the Man of Steel. I was 11 and 12, 1971-72, and I thought it was just the greatest thing ever.
It would not be O’Neil’s only claim to greatness. With artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, O’Neil took over Green Lantern in 1970, bringing the titular cosmic hero down to Earth to team with a costumed archer named Green Arrow, an also-ran superhero who’d hung around without much distinction since the ’40s. This dynamic creative team infused Green Lantern/Green Arrow with new energy, excitement, and an embrace of social relevance that drew the attention of mainstream media. Understand: Green Arrow was strictly a second-banana character up to that point; O’Neil and company revamped this Emerald Archer into the model for the popular character we know today. You don’t get to the Arrow TV series or the subsequent successful DC superhero shows on The CW without O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano showing the way. O’Neil also revived The Shadow for DC, wrote the return of the original Captain Marvel in Shazam!, crafted the magnificent Superman Vs. Muhammed Ali one-shot, and much later turned in some stunning work on The Question. He did more work for Marvel, as well. This isn’t even a thumbnail of O’Neil’s c.v.
But O’Neil’s most important and lasting work in comics was on Batman. No–make that THE Batman. Following the cancellation of the campy 1966-68 Batman TV series, the once-formidable Caped Crusader had become a joke. Batman’s tarnished reputation could only be salvaged with a return to his pulp roots. O’Neil wasn’t the first to consider reestablishing the shadows in The Batman’s world; Neal Adams had started adding noirish visuals to Batman’s appearances in the team-up book The Brave And The Bold, and writer Frank Robbins and artist Irv Novick (inked by Giordano) had already separated Batman from Robin the Boy Wonder by sending the latter off to college, all prior to O’Neil’s first Batman script.
Nonetheless, it all came together when O’Neil began to chronicle the goings-on in Gotham City. Whether working with Adams or Novick (both almost always inked by Giordano), O’Neil’s Batman was undeniably The Batman. From the early ’70s onward, this vision of The Batman as The Dark Knight influenced nearly every subsequent interpretation of the character. O’Neil created a new nemesis named Ra’s al Ghul, revived Golden Age villain Two-Face for the first time since the ’50s, and turned The Joker from the buffoonish Clown Prince of Crime that he’d become back to the murderous harlequin created by Bill Finger (and, I guess, Bob Kane, maybe) in 1940’s Batman # 1.
Dennis O’Neil saved Batman. The lasting impact of his Batman writing is beyond measure; if not for O’Neil, you can be damned sure that Batman–THE Batman–wouldn’t have become the multimedia juggernaut we now know. It wasn’t just O’Neil, of course. Still, none of it–the movies, the mania, the pop cultural preeminence, none of it–could have ever existed otherwise.
I was blown away by O’Neil’s Batman. I’d been hooked on superheroes in general and Batman in particular by the TV show in 1966, when I was six. As an adolescent and young teen, I read O’Neil’s Batman and exulted in the thrill of a Dark Knight, a Batman I could believe in.
I was 13 or 14 when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Specifically, I wanted to write comics. I wanted to write Batman. Goddamn it, I wanted to write Dennis O’Neil’s Batman.
I failed at that. And that’s okay. The effort made me better, gradually, over time. Dennis O’Neil was one of my biggest influences as a writer. If you have ever enjoyed anything I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, for this blog or elsewhere, it all comes from me wanting to be Dennis O’Neil, and Harlan Ellison, and Woody Allen, and Mark Shipper, and Max Allan Collins, and…yeah, it’s a long list. The list starts with Dennis O’Neil.
Dennis O’Neil passed away last week. He was 81. Comics fandom mourns. Gotham mourns. If The Batman also mourns, his emotions remain hidden in the shadows that are his home, his mask and cloak concealing any hint of his thoughts. He sees a signal in the night sky, and knows he is needed elsewhere.
And he is gone. As if he were never there.
Thank you, Dennis O’Neil. My life and my imagination would have been much poorer without you. Thank you. Just…thank you.
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