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 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.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 1984. I have never been a terribly successful freelance writer, but I wrote some stuff, made some sales, collected my meager paychecks, and got some notice. My widest notoriety was connected to my rockin’ pop journalism for Goldmine magazine 1986-2006, for Rhino Records‘ 1997 CD collection Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The ’90s, for contributions to books like Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth and Shake Some Action, and for my proudly biased proselytizin’ on behalf of The Flashcubes. Since 1998, I’ve co-hosted (and written weekly commentary for) This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio with Dana & Carl. Since 2016, I’ve pursued the cockeyed notion of daily blogging right here at Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do). I’m currently writing a book called The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). I’m at least as active now as I’ve ever been.
But before I ever started getting money to write about rock ‘n’ roll, I was paid to write about comic books.
My very first freelance writing sale was to a magazine called Amazing Heroes. In 1984, AH editor David W. Olbrich bought my history of The Secret Six, a DC Comics title which had run for seven issues in 1968-69.
Success! MONEY! Nearly enough money to buy dinner for two, and a movie! Nearly. But the best thing was seeing my byline in Amazing Heroes # 58 (11/1/84), and knowing that whatever happened or didn’t happen next, I had been paid for writing. I really liked that idea.
I did a little more work for Amazing Heroes over the next couple of years, and branched out to Krause Publications with a 1985 retrospective of the 1960s Batman TV series for Krause’s Comics Collector magazine. Krause also published a music magazine called Goldmine. That history was told elsewhere, in a lengthy reminiscence called “The Road To Goldmine.”
My freelance writing story started here, with a fond look back at a 1960s comic book about five adventurers being blackmailed by the sixth member of their team. But none of them knew which teammate was doing the blackmailing. Until they figured that out, they were obliged to answer the call:
DC did eventually do a sequel series to The Secret Six, published in the late ’80s in the pages of Action Comics Weekly. The “Secret Six” title was later appropriated and repurposed for an unrelated group of DC super-villains, and while some of those stories have their moments, they weren’t about my Secret Six.
My Secret Six was important to me. I wrote about them. I sold what I wrote. And I kept writing after that.
In 2019, I sold four short stories to AHOY Comics. I’m working on my book. I’m blogging. I’m writing. And I’m not done writing just yet.
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:
Waterloo 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 155 essays about 155 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).
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.
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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In the 1960s, my older sister Denise took dance lessons from Miss Lorraine’s School of Dance, located in the suburbs of Syracuse, on the stretch of Taft Road that serves as the transition from North Syracuse to East Syracuse, heading toward (believe it or not) Rattlesnake Gulch. If I recall correctly, she had a friend named Pam Bradley who lived a bit farther down Taft Road. In 1966, when I was six years old and freshly-addicted to superhero comic books, a car trip with my Dad–mainly to drop off/pick up Denise at either Miss Lorraine’s School of Dance or Pam Bradley’s place of residence–included a bonus side-trip to an unexpected setting of magic and wonder: a bookstore of some sort, which contained tables filled with comic books.
A brief history of comic book distribution before the rise of the direct market: for the first several decades of comic book publishing, comics (like other magazines) were sold to vendors on a returnable basis. Unsold comic books could be returned by the vendor, and then by the distributor, for full credit from the publisher. To save time, tumult, and money, distributors were not required to return the entire, intact book for credit; they were allowed to return just the cover, or even just the top part of the cover (i.e., the book’s title), and the distributor was then expected to destroy the coverless comic books that remained.
It was, of course, a system rife with abuse. Were any of these stripped comic books, magazines, or pulp paperbacks ever destroyed? One presumes there must have been some honest soul somewhere in this chain, I guess. But thousands and thousands of coverless and 3/4-coverless publications were re-sold, illegally, at deep discounts. A 12-cent new comic book became, say, a five-cent or eight-cent coverless comic book, a windfall profit of which the publisher received bupkis.
At six years old (and for a long time thereafter), I had no idea that I was purchasing illegal contraband. I just knew I was getting more comics.
Fifty years of rose-colored vision has likely distorted my memory, but I recall this store on Taft Road as having tables full of stripped comic books. And, on that one and only visit, I was allowed to pick out a few to take home with me. One was an issue of The Flintstones. Another was Superboy # 129.
Oh my God, I loved this comic book.
I doubt I had much clue about what was going on in the book itself. Nor did I realize that none of the stories were new, just (“just…?!”) 80 pages of reprints. But what did it matter? With a cover blurb promising “Superboy And His Super-Friends,” this book had superheroes as far as the eye could see! There was Superboy himself–The Adventures Of Superman When He Was A Boy!–with all the bullet-racin’, locomotive-beatin’, tall-building-vaultin’ that promised and delivered. But there was also a substitute Superboy named Vidal, a “super weakling from space” named Dworn, a time-traveling kid from Krypton named Zar-Al, and that, y’know, gurl–Supergirl, that is. Clark Kent’s own gal pal Lana Lang even got into the act–sort of–when she tried to help and/or manipulate an amnesiac Superboy set up a new secret identity.
But, best of all, there was “Superboy’s Big Brother,” Mon-El. First off, I dug Mon-El’s costume, which was simple, but featured a tunic-with-tails over shorts, just like Robin the Boy Wonder’s outfit. The two-part novel-length story, which originally appeared in Superboy # 89, shows us Superboy’s discovery of a rocketship containing an amnesiac, super-powered teen from space. See, in the DC universe, amnesia was a far more common malady than, like, measles. Circumstantial evidence leads the Boy of Steel to conclude that this strange visitor from another planet must have come from Superboy’s home planet of Krypton; furthermore, this new superkid must be Superboy’s brother, an older brother he never knew he had. Well, yeah; what other explanation could there be? Big brother arrived on Earth with no memory of his history, nor even his name, so Superboy decides to name him David Crosby. NO! I KID! I’m a kidder. Instead, Superboy names his brother after the day of the week, and Monday’s starchild becomes the superheroic Mon-El.
This new brotherly kinship soon gives way to slight sibling rivalry, but then to outright suspicion, as Superboy begins to question whether or not Mon-El really came from Krypton. To test Mon-El’s Kryptonian heritage, Superboy even takes the extreme measure of surreptitiously exposing a slumbering Mon-El to a low dose of deadly Kryptonite radiation; while this is kinda like, say, firing a bullet at Bruce Wayne to prove he’s Superman, Mon-El’s healthy non-reaction to the green rays does indeed prove he’s not a son of Krypton.
Now convinced that Mon-El is lying, Superboy arranges a trap to reveal Mon-El’s subterfuge. Superboy arranges for he and Mon-El to encounter a massive amount of fake Kryptonite meteors–actually lead, painted green–and to confront that treacherous cur Mon-El when he pretends to succumb to the ersatz Green K.
But the plan has unintended consequences: Mon-El does indeed succumb to the fake Kryptonite, but he’s not faking; the exposure is killing him. The radiation has also restored his memory. Mon-El is not from Krypton, but from the planet Daxam; he had met Superboy’s parents Jor-El and Lara prior to Krypton’s demise, and that meeting had provided the circumstantial clues that led Superboy to believe (through no fault of Mon-El, mind you) that they were Kryptonian brothers from the same mother. But it gets worse! Lead is just as deadly to Daxamites as Kryptonite is to Kryptonians, and Superboy’s well-intentioned stupid moves have condemned Mon-El to death. The only hope is to send Mon-El to The Phantom Zone, and let his disembodied form remain diaphanous until he can be cured of his lead poisoning. With that, Mon-El is voluntarily exiled to The Phantom Zone, awaiting the day Superboy can restore him to a physical, not-dying state. (A text piece in this issue then explained how Mon-El would remain in The Phantom Zone for a thousand years before being cured by Brainiac 5 in the 30th Century, allowing Mon-El to join The Legion Of Super-Heroes in the far future. So, Superboy’s a cad and a big fat failure.)
As a 56-year-old kid today, I can react to this with all the loving snark I wish. As a six-year-old kid reading it for the first time, the only appropriate reaction was: “Wow!” My original, cover-compromised copy of Superboy # 129 did not survive the ’60s. I replaced it some years later–with a complete cover, this time!–then stupidly sold it in a comics-collection purge in the ’70s. I bought my third and final copy in the ’80s, and that one will remain mine until I the day I slip forever into The Phantom Zone myself. As a budding teen writer, I imagined a sequel to “Superboy’s Big Brother!” as a Batman and Mon-El team-up for The Brave And The Bold, but never completed any work beyond its title (“The Phantom Of Gotham City”) and a vague concept.
Miss Lorraine’s School Of Dance on Taft Road closed its doors years and years ago. Pam Bradley moved to Florida; Denise reunited with her during our 1970 Florida vacation (a trip mentioned briefly here.) And I never again visited that store, with the tables full of stripped-cover comic books; perhaps it, too, slipped into The Phantom Zone. But it was real when I needed it to be.