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The Everlating First: E-Man

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 BlockLeo Dorfman, Gaylord DuBoisJoe 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 BeetleCaptain AtomThe PeacemakerJudo 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 Neo series The Charlton Arrow
Nicola Cuti passed away in 2020. The work lives on. You can’t destroy energy.

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Dennis O’Neil

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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Unfinished and Abandoned: The Notebook Notions, Part 1: The Bay City Rollers in Catch Us If You Can.

Some time in the early ’70s–probably circa 1973 or ’74, when I was 13 to 14 years old–I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I’ve never made much money in that endeavor, but there hasn’t been any extended period in the past four-decades-plus where I haven’t at least dabbled in writing… something.

So, while still a teen, I started filling notebooks with ideas for things I might want to write. “Ideas” inflates their worth and weight; these weren’t ideas, but little notions, germs of ideas, usually no more than a title or a vague concept at best.  Most of these notions were for comic-book stories (like The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze, my recently-completed Batman pulp story), but I also imagined things I could write for movies, magazines, TV, radio, and paperback novels.

In this open-ended series of Notebook Notions, I’ll be looking back at some of these half-baked, quarter-baked, sixteenth-baked, and damn-this-thing’s-still raw! almost-ideas that I jotted down in my notebooks.  If any of the notebooks themselves still survive, I hope to unearth ’em someday.  For now, this is all from memory; long before I became a middle-aged wannabe, I was a teen-aged wannabe, and I had a few notions, I did….
The Bay City Rollers in Catch Us If You Can

I’ve written a lot over the years about The Bay City Rollers; Scotland’s phenomenal pop combo was the subject of my first article for Goldmine in 1987 (later updated here), and even my blog bio mentions my interest in writing the liner notes to a Bay City Rollers anthology.  But I wasn’t really all that big a fan of them initially.  I thought their claim to be the next Beatles was absurd, but I liked their first two U.S. singles–“Saturday Night” and “Money Honey”–well enough, I guess, and I loved their third hit, “Rock And Roll Love Letter.”  Go ahead and have another listen to that one; I’ll wait here.

Yeah, still good.

So maybe I was a fan after all.  As silly as the Beatles comparison was, I’m sure the idea of a Scottish Fab Five intrigued this British Invasion zealot, and it surely fed my interest in them.  If The Bay City Rollers couldn’t be the next Beatles, perhaps they could be the next Dave Clark Five, or the next Herman’s Hermits, and that would be fine by me.  And if that were the case, the Rollers would need to do what The Beatles, Dave Clark Five, and Herman’s Hermits had all done before them:  The Bay City Rollers would need to make a movie.

It’s further illustration of what an out-of-time square peg I’ve always been:  in 1976, when pop music was at the awkward melting point of disco, metal, mellow, hard rock, prog, skyrockets in flight, and the early rude, loud stirrings of punk, I thought there would be commercial prospects for the razzafrazzin’ Bay City Rollers to star in a latter-day update of A Hard Day’s Night.  See, this is why I didn’t have a girlfriend.

But a notebook notion is a notebook notion.  At 16, A Hard Day’s Night was already my all-time favorite film.  I’d seen all of The Beatles’ movies:  A Hard Day’s Night on its first run at The North Drive-In in Cicero in 1964 (and on many a TV rerun thereafter), Help! on Channel 3’s weekday afternoon matinee, Yellow Submarine on network TV, and both Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be in a weekend matinee double-bill at The Hollywood Theater in Mattydale.  I had also seen Herman’s Hermits’ dreadful Hold On! at the Hollywood, and I think I’d seen The Monkees’ Head on the CBS late movie.  I had not yet seen The Dave Clark Five’s  Having A Wild Weekend, but I loved its companion album (not exactly a soundtrack LP), and I loved seeing that film’s stills on the LP’s cover.  And I figured, that’s the kind of movie The Bay City Rollers should make.  And that’s the kind of thing I should write, to further my sinister end game of becoming rich, famous, influential, irresistible to gurls, and ultimately married to hot actress Valerie Perrine.

One of my favorite songs at the time was The Dave Clark Five’s “Catch Us If You Can,” a song I’d heard on the radio and declared The Greatest Record Ever Made.  I didn’t realize that Catch Us If You Can had been the actual title of The Dave Clark Five’s 1965 feature film, re-titled Having A Wild Weekend for us dim Yanks here in the Colonies.  So my thought was that the Rollers should cover it as the title theme for their own breakout, career-defining feature film debut.

The notion never got all that much more specific than that.  My idea was heavily influenced (possibly to the point of outright thievery) by the film Good Times, a Sonny and Cher vehicle I had recently seen on TV.  In that movie, pop stars Sonny and Cher struggle with corporate entertainment-biz weasels for control of their own name-above-the-title flick.  I thought a similar plot would work for a Bay City Rollers movie:  The Man tries to treat Les, Derek, Eric, Alan, and Woody like puppets in the music business’ plastic cookie-cutter pop assembly line, and our heroes struggle with the gaudy temptations of success:  women, fame, women, wealth, women, adoration, women, and, y’know…groupies ‘n’ stuff.  The allure of such enticing prizes seems too much for five simple Scottish lads to resist, and individually they could well succumb to these sinful pleasures of greed, lust, and hedonism, but at the cost of their souls.  But standing together, The Bay City Rollers are too strong, too true to their own working-class roots, to be fooled by empty promises.  The group rebels, refusing to play the game, even if it costs them their fame, their fortune, and their future; for even without all of that, The Bay City Rollers would still have their music, and their tartan-clad friendship.  In a climactic showdown with the suits and the moneymen, The Bay City Rollers walk away from it all, gleefully, triumphantly, to the tune of “Catch Us If You Can.”  Their boldness resonates with youth across the globe, and The Bay City Rollers become bigger than ever, with no Big Company ever again telling them what they could or couldn’t do.  Catch this if you can, suckers!

Plus, they get to hang on to the women.  Finders keepers, man.

The bare-bones nonsense detailed above was farther than I ever got with Catch Us If You Can, and it still leaves such banal trivialities as plot, motivation, dialogue, pacing, and common sense to be tossed in some time down the road, I guess.  Even in my most starry-eyed flights of fancy, even as a more-naive-than-most 16-year-old, I knew this picture wasn’t gonna happen, ever.  If one could pretend for a second that I had the talent and drive to work up a complete project proposal for this–a bona fide synopsis, some sample script pages, something more concrete than a scrawled notebook entry that read The Bay City Rollers:  CATCH US IF YOU CAN [movie]–that leap of faith would still plummet into the murky depths of a Scottish loch, me laddies and lassies.  This was a fantasy.  And it was fun to imagine.

While I had the minimal intelligence necessary to discard the notion of The Bay City Rollers in Catch Us If You Can, I ultimately became a bigger fan of the group.  They were never my favorite, but I was never ashamed to proclaim my approval of the Rollers’ best power pop tracks, particularly “Rock And Roll Love Letter,””Wouldn’t You Like It” (which I somehow convinced The Flashcubes to cover for a Bay City Rollers tribute CD), and “Yesterday’s Hero,” among others.  In college, I had a BCR poster in my dorm room as an act of defiance, right alongside my KISS, Sex Pistols, and Suzi Quatro posters–a heady stance to take in the Southern Rock/Deadhead hotbed that was my college campus.  I pestered my friend Jane Gach to play “Wouldn’t You Like It” on her radio show; she protested, she refused, she told me to go to Hell…but she finally played it just to shut me up.  Surprise!  She loved the song, and said so on the air.  Just like at the climax of Catch Us If You Can:  the music of The Bay City Rollers transcended differences, and provided its own happy ending.  Roll credits!

(And, although Valerie Perrine never did deign to notice my existence, I met a girl named Brenda in college. On an early pizza date, listening to oldies on the restaurant’s radio, we discovered a mutual affection for a song I didn’t think anyone else my age knew about:  “Catch Us If You Can” by The Dave Clark Five.  Bonding!  Brenda and I have been together ever since.  Maybe my notebook notion of a song to further my sinister end game wasn’t as far off course as I’d thought.)

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Comics

The Everlasting First: Quick Takes For “S,” Comics Edition

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 Sandman

My first Sandman was the 1940s DC hero, his gas-masked face first shown to me on the cover of Justice League Of America # 47. That was also the first issue of JLA I had ever seen, spied on the spinner rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri during the summer of 1966. The summer of BATMAN! As a six-year-old on vacation, I was allowed to pick one twelve-cent four-color treasure off the rack to have for my very own. I was torn between this, the latest Batman, and an issue of Marvel’s Tales To Astonish. Mom said to buy the Batman and be done with it. Thus was my introduction to The Sandman deferred.

That issue was, of course, one of the annual summer team-ups of the Justice League and their alternate Earth counterparts The Justice Society of America. I followed the JLA/JSA crossovers with religious devotion from 1967 on. The Sandman made a cameo appearance in the first part of the 1968 crossover (JLA # 64), which must have been the first time I saw the character. Even though he wasn’t used all that much, The Sandman quickly became one my favorite JSA heroes, and I immediately wished that I could see more of him.

(And, although I preferred The Sandman in his original Green Hornet-inspired wardrobe of green business suit and a gas mask [plus cape], I did very much enjoy reprints of the Joe SimonJack Kirby version, decked out in traditional skintight superhero costume, proudly presented in early ’70s issues of The Forever People.)

The Seven Soldiers Of Victory

In the late ’60s, DC Comics published a series of text pages called “Fact Files.” These pieces told the back stories of various DC characters from the ’40s, and they were my introductions to Sargon the SorcererTarantula, and The Seven Soldiers of Victory. The Fact File for The Seven Soldiers of Victory stirred an interest beyond any of the others: a super team I didn’t know! Of its members, I was familiar with Green Arrow and Speedy, of course, but the others–The VigilanteThe Shining KnightThe Star-Spangled Kid and StripesyThe Crimson Avenger, and unofficial eighth Soldier Wing–were all new to me. A gorgeous Murphy Anderson pinup page of these Law’s Legionnaires (published in the giant-sized Justice League Of America # 76 in 1969) served to further whet my appetite to read the adventures of The Seven Soldiers of Victory.

The Silver Surfer

House ads in 1960s comic books were both a treat and a tease, enticing me with tempting images of far, far more comic books than I was ever going to be able to own as a kid. I don’t remember seeing Fantastic Four # 55 in any stores in 1966, but I remember seeing its cover in a Marvel Comics house ad, and thinking a six-year-old’s equivalent of COOL! I don’t think I saw The Silver Surfer in an actual comic book until he got his own title in 1968.

The Spider

Nostalgia was big in the ’70s, and this boom in the art of looking back gave me all manner of opportunities to discover superheroes and adventurers from the ’30s and the ’40s. I fell hard for 1930s pulp heroes, especially Doc Savage and The Shadow. I believe I first read about The Spider in Steranko‘s amazing two-volume reminiscence The Steranko History Of Comics. Since Marvel and DC had respectively licensed Doc Savage and The Shadow for new comic books, I hoped one or the other would also see fit to revive The Spider. But it was not to be.

Spy Smasher

Ah, Spy Smasher was a hero to me long before I ever had a chance to see him in any sort of adventure. Like The Spider (but earlier in my timeline), my interest in Spy Smasher was ignited by the comics histories I was absorbing in the ’70s. My first glimpse (and probably first awareness) of Spy Smasher was in the book All In Color For A Dime, and its full-color reproduction of the cover of Spy Smasher # 1 from 1941.I saw the book on the shelf at World Of Books in North Syracuse some time in the early ’70s, flipped through its pages, and I was hooked on all of these heroes of the past.

My interest in Spy Smasher was subsequently reinforced when I learned that–like his comrade the original Captain Marvel–he’d starred in his own movie serial in the ’40s. More comics histories (especially the Steranko books) continued to feed this interest. Other than his part in the 1976 JLA/JSA crossover (JLA # 135-137) and the reprint of his first appearance in DC’s tabloid reproduction of Whiz Comics # 2, I didn’t get to read an actual Spy Smasher comic book until years later, nor see his serial until decades later. But I was and remain a fan. It all started with All In Color For A Dime.

Star Wars

To paraphrase both Josie & the Pussycats and TV ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes: we’ve come a long way, baby. In these days of summer movie blockbuster events, it seems a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away that such things didn’t exist. In the ’70s, my friends and I all saw lots of movies in the summer, but the idea of any individual popcorn flick becoming a pop culture flashpoint was…well, fantasy. 

Until Star Wars rewrote the rules in 1977. I can’t tell you objectively if the movie holds up now, but when I was 17, freshly graduated from high school? Star Wars was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. I knew comic books and science fiction, from the most basic space opera through attempts at more intelligent and mature storytelling, Buck Rogers to Harlan Ellison. I’d seen the first Flash Gordon movie serial, doted on TV reruns of Star Trek, ogled Valerie Perrine in the film version of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, turned my nose up at Space: 1999. I wanted more. I wanted serious science fiction and high adventure.

Star Wars was definitely not serious science-fiction, but it was the full-screen realization of every pulp, serial, and superhero fantasy up to that point. Good versus evil, confident in its cosmic skin, with none of the self-consciously campy ooze that characterized so much of ’70s genre films (lookin’ at youDoc Savage: Man Of Bronze). It was fun, it was fascinating, and everyone I knew saw it several times. The dawn of the era of the summer blockbuster was upon us.

But the film was not my introduction to Star Wars. I had picked up the first issue of Marvel’s licensed Star Wars comic book, written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howie Chaykin. The first issue was cover dated July 1977, but it was on the stands months before that, and I believe several issues had been published before the film’s opening scroll promising CHAPTER IV: A NEW HOPE appeared on any theater screen. I don’t think I was quite blown away by the comic book, but it was interesting enough that I stuck with it for a little while. And when a bunch of us made plans at Faith Berkheimer’s graduation party to see that new sci-fi movie opening the following week, I was the only one of my pals to already know a thing or two about Luke Skywalker and company.

And still, I had no idea how big Star Wars would be. I’ve yet to see any of director George Lucas‘s prequel movies, and I’ve only seen one of the latter-day Star Wars efforts (The Force Awakens, which I did enjoy). But those first three Star Wars movies were events, the precursor to the Marvel movies of today. Pass the popcorn. May the Force be with you.

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Justice Society Of America: The Movie (a random notion)

Some years back, I had a vague notion of a major motion picture starring comics’ original super-team The Justice Society of America. It was just a series of passing fancies, not something I would have wasted time trying to plot out or conceptualize to any degree. If someone ever attempts to make a JSA movie, there is no plausible chance that I would have any involvement whatsoever. (I mean, y’know, beyond buying a ticket.)

But back to the fantasy. My ideal JSA movie would be set around 1940 or so, prior to America’s official entry into World War II, but with much of the rest of the world already engulfed in that conflagration overseas. The villains would be Axis, because I like adventure stories that involve punching Nazis.


Practical considerations (a factor even in fantasy) would preclude the use of characters like SupermanBatman, or Wonder Woman, plus the original Captain Marvel. We would probably steer clear of some Golden Age characters that share a name with modern heroes–specifically The Flash and Green Lantern–but would be free to use Hawkman or The Atom if we wish.

My vision of this story is slightly more down-to-earth, so I wouldn’t really want to use the most powerful characters. I might or might not want to use Hawkman, but I would use the 1940s Atom, who was a short guy with a penchant for fightin’ but no super powers.

My most integral JSA member is an unlikely one: Ma Hunkel, The Red Tornado (often derisively nicknamed “The Red Tomato”). Yeah, I know she was just comic relief (a brawny homemaker who put on an ad hoc costume to bop bad guys in her working class urban neighborhood), and that she wasn’t really a member of the Society anyway.  But Ma Hunkel is essential to me, more so than any other character we could use; I just like the idea of a headstrong, stubborn Jewish tenement scrapper takin’ on Adolf’s boys and unceremoniously kicking their collective ass. Repeatedly.

(Brief aside: I’ve written elsewhere of my introduction to The Red Tornado, and it’s worth repeating this passage describing what I would do if I were given a chance to write a Justice League/Justice Society crossover: “Although Ma Hunkel never appeared in any of the old JLA/JSA meetings, I would have definitely wanted to include her if I’d had an opportunity to write such a story. I picture a scene of a group of non-powered JLA and JSA members, huddled in hiding while surveying an enemy army, Batman urging caution as he comes up with a plan of attack, only to see ol’ Red Tomato break ranks and dive-bomb headfirst into battle. Green Arrow joins the fight, saying ‘I like this dame!,’ and Wildcat replying, ‘Told ya so!'” Yeah, that’s the Red Tornado I wanna see in a JSA movie.)

Hey, speaking of Wildcat, he would also be an essential JSA member for this film. Another scrapper–specifically a champion heavyweight boxer–I see Ted “Wildcat” Grant as a character connected to his own working class upbringing, possibly from the same general neighborhood as Ma Hunkel. We may as well call it Suicide Slum, and potentially bring in Simon & Kirby‘s hero The Guardian and his kid gang The Newsboy Legion.

I would also ignore comics chronology and bring in The Black Canary as a founding JSA member, the blind hero Dr. Mid-Nite, and possibly The Vigilante, too. Ol’ Vig was never in the JSA–he was in The Seven Soldiers Of Victory and The All-Star Squadron–but the idea of a singing radio cowboy by day/masked crimefighter by night is irresistible to me, and it carries out my long-standing belief that any adventure story can be improved instantly just by adding a cowboy. 

So: The Red Tornado, The Atom, Wildcat, Black Canary, and maybe Dr. Mid-Nite, The Vigilante, or The Sandman (DC’s answer to The Green Hornet). Or maybe wealthy overachiever Mr. Terrific, to ultimately fund our fledgling supergroup, former Fawcett Comics hero Spy Smasher to help combat the Fifth Columnists, and/or Air Wave to rally the public via radio. Let’s add Hourman and Starman (two heroes enhanced by science, the former with chemically-induced strength and the latter with hi-tech weaponry), and reserve some real cosmic heavy-hitter for the film’s climax. Either the dormant ancient Egyptian power of Hawkman or the mystic might of Dr. Fate could be inadvertently resurrected by the Nazis as their evil plan literally blows up in their goose-stepping kissers. And a Society of Justice is formed to defend America and fight for justice. A swell bunch of guys and gals!

I could also see bringing in folks like the aviator Blackhawk or Green Lantern’s cabbie buddy Doiby Dickles as supporting characters. I’m tempted to include the JSA’s comic relief member Johnny Thunder, but his magic genie Thunderbolt would feel out of place, so best to skip Mr. Thunder entirely. Potential sequels could have any Golden Age DC/Fawcett/Quality hero we want, from Midnight to Liberty Belle to Bulletman and Bulletgirl to Merry, Girl of 1000 Gimmicks. And Ibis the Invincible. I’d love to bring Captain Marvel and the power of SHAZAM into the mix, but even flights of fancy require some slight tether to the real world.

And yeah: no script, no plot, no outline here, no grand idea of a superhero movie that needs to be made. And it’s not the Justice Society of the comics, so purists would cry foul. It’s just a notion, and an ill-defined one at that.

But wouldn’t it be cool? Keep ’em flying, JSA!

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Categories
Boppin'

Remote Control

I no longer want my MTV.

I didn’t have MTV in the early ’80s. When I graduated college and moved into my first apartment in 1980, I couldn’t afford cable, and didn’t even own a working TV for a year or so somewhere in the early part of that time frame. But I saw MTV when I visited my parents in Syracuse, and I was in favor of the concept. All rock videos all the time? Yeah! Sure, I wished there was greater (or, y’know, some) representation of The Ramones or British Invasion or The Monkees instead of so much Billy Squier and Pat Benatar, but I would nonetheless watch MTV into the wee hours on the rare opportunities I had to do so.

Plus Martha Quinn was just as cute as a button, man.

I missed a chance to see my Syracuse pop heroes Screen Test compete on MTV’s Basement Tapes in 1983; my fiancée Brenda and I wandered from bar to bar in our Buffalo neighborhood, trying to find a drinking (or any) establishment willing to let us watch a half-hour’s worth of MTV, but to no avail. In 1986, MTV started playing reruns of The Monkees. That was, in a way, the network’s first step away from its original raison d’être, although The Monkees’ romps were at least still music-related. No MTV for me yet, but my upstairs neighbor Cheryl invited me to join her for occasional Monkees viewings, so I got my random Micky-Davy-Peter-Michael fix that way. By the the time I could finally budget cable into my monthly expenditures in late ’86, The Monkees were nearing the end of their MTV honeymoon; an unpleasant divorce from the network followed in 1987, as The Monkees were banished from MTV and relegated to the kids’ network Nickelodeon instead.


It took a long time for MTV to evolve (if that’s the word) from music programming. Most would trace the beginning of that path away from music videos to the 1992 debut of the reality series The Real World, and run through subsequent programs like Beavis And Butthead and the current plethora of trash-TV that’s as palatable to me as Kryptonite is to Kal-El. But I have to admit that MTV’s very first venture into non-music programming was, in fact, a show I enjoyed quite a bit. It was a game show called MTV’s Remote Control, which debuted in December of 1987. Somewhere around 1989 or ’90, I tried to become a contestant on Remote Control.

Do you remember Remote Control? I tell ya, the show was kind of a hoot, a too-cool-for-school game show that didn’t allow its own self-awareness to succumb to detachment or to (hardly) ever get in the way of its sense of goofy fun. Its high-concept foundation was that host Ken Ober had always wanted to be a TV game show host when he was (theoretically) growing up. Now, he’d made his dream come true by setting up his own game show in the basement of his parents’ house at 72 Whooping Cough Lane. Let hijinks ensue! The show’s theme song laid it out:

Kenny wasn’t like the other kids
REMOTE CONTROL!
TV mattered, nothing else did
REMOTE CONTROL!
Girls said yes, but he said no
REMOTE CONTROL!
Now he’s got his own game show
REMOTE CONTROL!
With images from classic game shows–George Fenneman and Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life, the logo from Truth Or ConsequencesMonty Hall on Let’s Make A Deal–flickering on a TV screen as Ken grows from boy to man, the intro gives way to the show’s announcer, comic Colin Quinn:

And now it’s his basement, it’s his rules, it’s his game show. The quizmaster of 72 Whooping Cough Lane, KEN OBER!
Ober was a stand-up comic, so Remote Control‘s vibe was willfully snarky. Three young contestants were strapped into La-Z-Boy chairs, given TV remotes, and directed to compete in TV trivia. Each channel on Ken’s old Zenith offered a different TV trivia category. Six Feet UnderCelebrity FleshBabes And AssassinsPrivate DicksBrady PhysicsDead Or Canadian. Ober asked the questions, and his on-screen comrades–Quinn, musician Steve Treccase, and a hostess (originally Marisol Massey)–participated when appropriate. Channels such as Shakespeare TV required Colin Quinn to ask the question in the form of a comic performance; similar channels called for recurring characters played by Adam SandlerDenis Leary, and John Ten Eyck. After the first two rounds, the contestant with the lowest score was eliminated, with his/her recliner physically ejected from the set, the luckless player still strapped to it.

Goofy. And fun. I wanted to be a part of this!

I’ve been trying to remember precisely when I auditioned for Remote Control. I was just this side of too-old to compete; the show’s rules said all contestants had to be under 30, or maybe under 31. If the latter, my try-out was in 1990, some time after my thirtieth birthday. It’s a young man’s (or woman’s) game, sure. But I was gonna try my hand nonetheless. I spied a notice that an open audition would take place on campus at Syracuse University. I arranged for a day off from work, and I was there. REMOTE CONTROL!
Brenda had zero interest in appearing in a game show, but she accompanied me to offer moral support and for the experience itself. I wish I could remember exactly where on campus the audition took place. Both Brenda and I recall it as a lecture hall, though I don’t think it was a particularly large room. Upon arrival, we were informed that there could be no guests, that only potential contestants would be allowed entry. Brenda shrugged and agreed to try out.

There was, I’m sure, some disappointment among the assembled hopefuls that none of the show’s on-air talent was present at the audition. Orange Nation did not have the chance to welcome Ken Ober, Colin Quinn, or Steve Treccase to the ‘Cuse. Nor did we get to see Kari Wuhrer, the pretty young actress who had replaced Marisol as Remote Control hostess. My pesky memory insists that the woman in charge that day was Shannon Fitzgerald, who would go on to become a pretty big-deal producer and executive; I can’t find anything online to specifically connect Fitzgerald with Remote Control, so I can’t state for the record that my pesky memory hasn’t been drinking. But Fitzgerald’s name sticks in my recollection, right or wrong.

(Kari Wuhrer, with whom much of the male portion of Remote Control‘s fanbase was duly smitten, left the show following its third season. Whenever my audition was, we did not yet know that Kari was gone, or if in fact she was gone at the time. Fitzgerald–and let’s presume it was Shannon Fitzgerald runnin’ the show at SU that day–made some kind of comment about Wuhrer, but I can’t pinpoint the specifics in my mind.)

The auditions were held in three parts. The first part was a written test, a series of TV trivia questions, with no multiple choice. I wish I could remember some of the questions, but I do remember that they seemed easy enough. I aced the written. Brenda didn’t, but no one was asked to leave. The folks in charge needed an audience for phase two: the live audition.

The live audition was crucial, a test to see if Shannon and company felt we were sufficiently bubbly and effervescent to appear on TV. No, not just TV–MTV!! I want my MTV! Can’t just fold up like a dyin’ Pac-Man here. You want a TV personality, an MTV personality? Awright. I could do that.

No, really. I could.

I can be shy in real life. I don’t always know what to say, or how to act. But on stage, or in front of a microphone? Yeah, not a problem. Years later, I would often tell my daughter that you need never be afraid of an audience; the audience should be afraid of you. This mundane planet is one thing. Performing is quite another. Show business! With the few minutes before my name was called for my live audition, my mind worked out what I had to do.

Carl Cafarelli!
Hey, that’s me! I strolled to the front of the little lecture hall, smiling and waiving at the assembled hopefuls. Yep, I was definitely the oldest guy there. I could work that. I was given, I think, two minutes to dazzle and impress. I wouldn’t need that long. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but here’s a reasonable approximation:

Hey, how’s everyone doin’? Good? My name’s Carl Cafarelli, I’m from right here in Syracuse, NY, the town so nice they named it. A giggle from somewhere. Good. And I tell ya–this thing today is my LAST SHOT. Really! That’s it, man. I’m 30 years old. I am just shy of bein’ put out to pasture. MTV don’t want no thirty-one-year olds. MTV looks at 31 like it’s in dog years. “Jeez, this guy’s like two hundred and ten years old? Can’t we just get him some moss for his north side?” A couple more laughs. But I wanted to quit while I was ahead. I get it. It’s a young person’s world. I’ll go coffin shopping tomorrow. I’m just glad I had this chance to see you all here. I wanted to close by singing, like, my all-time favorite TV show theme song, “The Batman Theme.” Yeah! But I can’t remember the words. Can you help me out?

Quietly but immediately, a few kids in the small crowd began to sing, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na…. I whooped my own approval, That’s it! More joined in, and the whole damned crowd was singing, Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na BATMAN! I pumped my fist in the air, That’s it! Thanks! Thanks so much everyone! I walked back to my seat to the sound of applause. Like The Beatles before me, I had passed the audition.

The third and final part of the try-out was a practice game of Remote Control. The remaining hopefuls were divided into groups of three to compete with each other in abbreviated Remote Control contests. I had a buzz of confidence, anticipation…

…And that’s where I crashed.

In that long-ago, prehistoric, low-tech world, back when future Vice President Al Gore was still workin’ the kinks out of that Internet thing he’d invented, mock game shows in Syracuse University lecture halls didn’t have a Remote Control set with La-Z-Boys and remote controls to play with. No, we had classroom desk-and-chair combos; if we wanted to be the first to try to answer a question, we were instructed to slap the tops of our desks to ring in (as it were) in the absence of actuals buzzers to use. Surely this ain’t how Ken Jennings started!

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; at 30, I was the oldest guy in the game. Regardless of whether I was armed with a buzzer to buzz in or a hand to slap on a desk, my reflexes were already slower than those of my college-age competitors. When I couldn’t slap fast enough to answer a Monkees question–A MONKEES QUESTION!–I knew I was toast. (Oh, for the record, the question was: “The Monkees gave good movie in this, their only feature film.” The Monkees’ Head is one of my favorite movies, and I’m still kicking myself for being too slow to answer that one.)

I swallowed my disappointment and went home with Brenda. It’s a young person’s game.

So I never got to be on MTV. I’ve never appeared on a game show, and I likely never will. I continued to watch MTV’s Remote Control. Kari Wuhrer was replaced by Alicia Coppola, who was herself replaced by Susan Ashley. The show ran for a total of five seasons, and Al Gore’s brainchild informs me there was also a syndicated version. The final original episode aired in late 1990 (calling into question the timeline I’ve detailed for my audition. Maybe I was only 29? Jeez, you’d think my reflexes woulda been faster at 29…!)

Colin Quinn went on to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, and so did Adam Sandler. Still, the only time I ever liked Sandler was…well, no, I didn’t like him on Remote Control either, but his movie The Wedding Singer was surprisingly charming. Denis Leary also found fame, and Kari Wuhrer actually had a ton of acting roles, many of which called for her to remove her shirt. Alicia Coppola also has a long string of TV acting credits, but neither Marisol Massey nor Susan Ashley managed to score more than a handful of roles (at least according to IMdB). Ken Ober, the heart of MTV’s Remote Control, had a few more hosting gigs (on MTV, USAESPN, and Comedy Central), some radio, and worked as a producer on the CBS sitcom The New Adventures Of Old Christine. Ober passed away in 2009. He was 52 years old.

Categories
Double Take

Double Take!

We here at Pop-a-looza HQ think that actors Bruce Greenwood and Dennis Quaid have a very similar look. While they probably won’t get mistaken as twins, they do look like they could at least be siblings.

Categories
Boppin'

Comic Book Retroview: The 1966 Batman Signet Paperback

COMIC BOOK RETROVIEW: The 1966 BATMAN Signet Paperback

by Carl Cafarelli

I don’t think I’ll ever know this for sure, but it’s possible that my first Batman and Robin comic book wasn’t really a comic book at all. I mean, it could have been. It could have been Batman # 184, which I selected out of other four-color choices perched in the comic book display at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation in the summer of 1966. Or it could have been a mini-comic given away as a promo item from Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. Stretching our parameters a bit, it could have been a Batman coloring book. But no–I think my first Batman comic book was really a paperback book: a little 1966 package from Signet Books, promising “The BEST of the original BATMAN–the Caped Crusader’s greatest adventures.” I was six. And a new world was waiting for me.

’66 Batmania had a deep and lasting effect on me. Although my older brother Art had to pry me away from my beloved Wednesday night TV appointment with Lost In Space because he wanted to watch Batman instead, I came to prefer our Dynamic Duo in very short order. Presaging my future life as a pop obsessive, I immediately had to immerse myself in all things Batman. Toys! Coloring books! More toys! Although I had already read (or had read to me) some Superman comic books, the Batman TV show was the true Ground Zero for my lifelong fascination with superheroes.

In retrospect, given the January ’66 debut of Batman, it seems odd I didn’t get to comic books faster. Did I really wait until summer to start amassing these twelve-cent wonders? That simply can’t be true, but I have no memory of reading a Batman comic book prior to Batman # 184 in Missouri, months later. Damn the Swiss cheese of my memories from when I was…all right, only six years old. I guess I can take a mulligan there. Regardless of whether the Signet Batman book was my very first or merely one of my first exposures to Batman in comics form, its significance in my burgeoning hero worship is beyond question. This book mattered to me. A lot.

I’m trying to remember where I got the book, beyond the obvious answer that my parents bought it for me. I have a vague recollection (real or imagined) of plucking it from a spinner rack, and I want to say it was at either J.M. Fields (a department store chain that had its own dedicated Batman merchandise section at the time) or at Switz’s variety store. Neither of those retail outlets carried comic books, damn them. But one of them peddled this, the gateway drug to my lifetime addiction to comics.

The first story in the book has been called the most-reprinted two-page sequence in the history of comic books: “The Legend Of The Batman–Who He Is And How He Came To Be!” It was my first glimpse of Batman’s back story, of how the young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder, and the grief-stricken boy’s solemn vow: “I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” After years of training his mind and body, the now-adult Bruce prepares to begin his war on crime, brooding and telling himself, “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible….”

And the appearance of a bat flying in Bruce’s window provides his inspiration. “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen…I shall become a BAT!”

It was a far cry from the BIFF! and BAM! of the TV show. On the tube, actor Adam West‘s lines as Bruce Wayne made occasional reference to the murder of his parents; the comics page brought that horror to life, vividly, perhaps even more starkly in this paperback’s black-and-white reproduction.

(The Signet book reprinted Batman’s origin in its most familiar form, as seen in Batman # 1 from Spring 1940, albeit edited into a six-page sequence to adjust for the different page size of a paperback. This two-page origin was first seen, with a different splash image, as the introduction to “The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible Of Doom” in Detective Comics # 33 [November 1939]. Although “The Dirigible Of Doom” was written by Gardner Fox, comics historians believe the origin sequence was written by Batman’s then-uncredited co-creator Bill Finger. The art was by Bob Kane, the guy who took the byline and sole credit for Batman’s creation, ensuring that history would come to regard Kane as a schmuck.)

The rest of the book’s reprints were from the early ’50s, and if they sacrificed some of the pulp noir feel of Batman’s origin, they made up for that loss with sheer zest and commitment. “The Web Of Doom!” (from Batman # 90, March 1955, credits believed to be Finger with artists Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris) doesn’t even skimp on the pulp tension, with its riveting tale of amnesia, danger, and time running out. “Fan-Mail Of Danger!” (Batman # 92, May-June 1955, same presumed credits) mixes humor with suspense to winning effect, presaging our current cult of pop idolatry and obsession. 

“The Crazy Crime Clown!” (Batman # 74, December 1952) is next. Written by Alvin Schwartz, penciled by Dick Sprang with Charles Paris inks, this tour-de-force of Batman and Robin versus The Joker offers the book’s only use of any of Batman’s most famous foes, and it’s fantastic. The art’s phenomenal, of course–I regard Sprang as one of the definitive Batman artists, perhaps even more so than later masters like Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers–and the images jump off the page, even in a black-and-white pocket book. And the story remains one of my top Joker appearances, its natural sense of humor balanced with adventure and intrigue. Reading it when I was six, there were times I laughed out loud, while still being thrilled by the storyline. (I do recall being confused by an image of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson standing in a foggy night scene; rather than fog, it appeared to my young eyes as if our intrepid heroes had burrowed their way up from the depths of the Batcave–like Quisp‘s subterranean rival Quake would have done in commercials for Quisp and Quake cereals–and were surrounded by displaced dirt, not fog. Man, I was an odd kid.)

“The Crime Predictor!” (Batman # 77, May-June 1953), “The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints!” (Batman # 82, March 1954), and “The Testing Of Batman!” (Batman # 83, April 1954) completed the paperback’s  collection of Bat-treasures. I loved each and every one of them, then and now. Having already been introduced to Batman and Robin via the TV series, I found the Signet paperback to be my best possible introduction to my hero’s comic book adventures.

This was the first of three Batman comics collections published by Signet in 1966, though I didn’t get (nor even see) copies of Batman Vs. The Joker or Batman Vs. The Penguin until many years later. I also didn’t see either of Signet’s two Batman novels, Batman Vs. Three Villains Of Doom and Batman Vs. The Fearsome Foursome(the latter a novelization of the 1966 Batman feature film) until well, well after the fact. I have them all now, secured in varying condition from dealers in the ’70s and ’80s. My copy of Batman Vs. The Fearsome Foursome was autographed by Adam West at a car show in Buffalo in 1987.

And I still have that original, worn, tattered, dog-eared, loved-to-death copy of a paperback collection called Batman, plucked from a spinner rack when I was six years old. It’s falling apart, and its inside front cover was customized in ’66 by that very same six-year-old, a kid who would (sort of) grow up wishing to create fictional adventures of his own. 

Hadda start somewhere. Before trading my twelve cents for a copy of Batman # 184 in Missouri, before Detective Comics or The Brave And The Bold or Justice League Of America or World’s Finest Comics, before Denny O’Neil or Steve EnglehartIrv Novick or Jim Aparo, or any other stellar iteration of The Batman in comic form–before any of that–I started here.