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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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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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