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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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The Blue Beetle!

My Oldest Comic Book: The Blue Beetle # 6 (Fox, 1941)

The oldest comic book I’ve ever owned was a copy of The Blue Beetle # 6, published by Fox Comics in 1941. It was a coverless copy, and I’m not certain whether or not I still own it. I have a box of coverless comic books in my garage, and I’m going to start going through that box soon for a post (or perhaps a series of posts) about ’em.

My kooky memory can often recall all sorts of specifics about when and where I accumulated a comic book or record in my sprawling collections. I can’t remember where I got this one. I’m pretty sure it was in the ’70s; I remember a National Lampoon Golden Age comic parody (called “Ver-Man,” maybe?) which reminded me of The Blue Beetle as depicted here. I did trade with a high school pal for a few very low-grade condition ’40s and ’50s comics; my coverless copy of The Avengers # 4 was among the books he received in the trade, so he did all right. But I don’t think this Blue Beetle was part of that stash. It could have been a flea market purchase. The precise recollection ain’t there. Hell, for all I know, I could have picked this up when I lived in Buffalo in the ’80s. I still think I got in the ’70s.

The Blue Beetle I knew prior to this was the Charlton Comics hero of the ’60s, who shared a name and nothing else with the Fox character. However, the Blue Beetle familiar to me grew out of the original Blue Beetle; Charlton acquired the rights to The Blue Beetle in the mid ’50s, and the company made a few sporadic attempts to continue publishing the character. Charlton revamped The Blue Beetle slightly around 1964–coincidentally, a good year for something that sounded like “Beatle”–but the books were dull and uninspired, boring. Legendary artist (and Spider-Man co-creator) Steve Ditko created the the new Blue Beetle, which debuted as a back-up strip in Captain Atom # 83 in 1966. As presented by Ditko and scripter Gary Friedrich, this new Beetle’s alter ego of scientist Ted Kord was under suspicion in the unexplained disappearance of Dan Garrett, the original Blue Beetle.

But that’s a story for another day, and it’s a story well worth checking out if you’re a fan of Silver Age superhero comics. For now, we go back to 1941 for a tale of the original original Blue Beetle.

Fox’s Blue Beetle comics are now in the public domain. This scan of The Blue Beetle # 6 comes to us via Digital Comic Museum, a trusted resource for free downloads of public domain comics. And now, my oldest comic book. Ladies and gentlemen, THE BLUE BEETLE!