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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Red Tornado

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 story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

In 1968, the world seemed like it could shatter. Assassinations and protests, an increasingly unpopular war, conflicts between races and generations, and a general feeling of unease and ugliness permeated the year. I was eight years old. I was oblivious to much of what was happening, but even I could tell that things weren’t quite right in the world.

This was not necessarily reflected much, if at all, in the comic books I read.

Comic books were safe, stable. Even within the occasional soap opera mishigas of Marvel Comics, justice could be expected to triumph. This was even more true in the relatively staid and conservative world of DC Comics, the home of familiar, comforting do-gooders like SupermanBatman, and The Justice League of America. In the pages of a comic book, an eight-year-old could be in his heaven, and all could be right with the world. Even in 1968.

In comics, one symbol of stability was the annual two-part crossover of the JLAand their parallel Earth counterparts The Justice Society of America, the original super-team from the 1940s. The first issue of JLA I remember seeing was the second part of the 1966 JLA/JSA team-up, though it remained on the spinner rack unpurchased (I bought an issue of Batman instead). Just shy of a year later, my first issue of JLA was part one of the ’67 crossover, cover-featuring an adult Robin taking his older mentor Batman’s place in the Justice Society. I was hooked, and dutifully (and gleefully!) purchased part two the next month. A cumulative twenty-four cents well spent.

By the time the summer of ’67 became the summer of ’68, I’d somehow figured out that these team-ups were an annual occurrence, and I was right primed for the 1968 two-parter while on vacation in Missouri. Justice League Of America # 64 only featured the JSA, with only Hourman returning from the ’67 team-up. I sort of knew Starman and Black Canary from seeing house ads for their co-starring appearances in The Brave And The Bold, and I remembered Dr. Fate from the cover of that JLA/JSA comic book I didn’t buy in 1966. This may have been my introduction to The Flash of the JSA’s Earth (Earth-Two), but I immediately dug his costume, with its helmet inspired by the Roman god Mercury.

That left one more new character: The Red Tornado. Over the course of these annual JLA/JSA crossovers from 1963 though ’67, writer Gardner Fox had reintroduced all of the original JSA members except the Earth-Two Batman and Superman, both of whom had been reserve members of the team in the ’40s; Batman had been represented by the above-mentioned adult Robin in ’67, and the original Superman would finally reappear in 1969. The original Red Tornado–nicknamed  “The Red Tomato,” in reality a muscular housewife named Ma Hunkel, who donned costume to beat on neighborhood nogoodniks in Sheldon Mayer‘s comedy strip Scribbly–hadn’t ever been a member of the JSA, nor even a reserve member; she’d stumbled into a one-page cameo in the Justice Society’s first meeting in 1940’s All Star Comics # 3, and was never referenced in that context again.

Although Fox and editor Julie Schwartz weren’t averse to using goofball JSA member Johnny Thunder for comic relief, they plainly had no interest in reviving Ma Hunkel (whom Starman recalled as “all brawn and no brain” in the ’68 story). Like ol’ Ma Hunkel, this new Red Tornado barged into a JSA meeting uninvited, but that and the name were the only things our two Tornadoes had in common.

Unlike the tough street fighter Ma Hunkel, the 1968 model Red Tornado had super powers, basically the ability to create powerful whirlwinds of force. The new Tornado believed himself to be the original Red Tornado from the ’40s, but he wasn’t; he was an android, created by the evil T. O. Morrow to infiltrate and help destroy the Justice Society, all as part of Morrow’s scheme to kill his real arch-enemies, the Justice League. Morrow didn’t even bother to give The Red Tornado a face; there were no eyes, nose, mouth, ears, nor any features at all beneath the mask of The Red Tornado. Nonetheless, The Red Tornado refused to be Morrow’s pawn, and instead helped our heroes defeat the villain. The Red Tornado joined the JSA, and later migrated to Earth-One to join the JLA. He perished saving both Earths in the climax of my favorite JLA/JSA crossover, Justice League Of America # 100-102 in 1971. He was resurrected again within a few years.

The Red Tornado’s 1968 debut roughly coincided with Marvel Comics’ introduction of The Vision in the super-team book The Avengers. These two characters had notable similarities. Both were androids, created by sinister masterminds (Ultron in The Vision’s case) as weapons against the good guys, and both rebelled against their evil overloads and went on to join the teams they were supposed to snuff. Both, incidentally, were also Silver Age remake/remodels of lesser-known ’40s characters. Even visually, both had red faces and wore collared capes. Mere coincidence? Yeah, almost certainly. But remarkable coincidences just the same.

I liked the new ‘n’ (supposedly) improved Red Tornado at the time, but looking back, I’ve come to prefer original Red Tornado Ma Hunkel to her android counterpart. For one thing, those Scribbly And The Red Tornado strips that Sheldon Mayer did for All-American Comics in the ’40s were a hoot, energetic stuff just loaded with sheer personality, more interesting to me than the modern-day miasma of a square-peg android wishing he could fit in. Great, a superhero from the island of misfit toys. I first read a teasing sample of Mayer’s Red Tornado in the ’70s, in DC’s oversized reprint of the JSA’s first appearance. I later read a few months’ worth of Scribbly And The Red Tornado stories when they were reprinted in the hardcover book A Smithsonian Collection Of Comic-Book Comics. I would love to read the entire series. Writer Geoff Johns finally brought Ma Hunkel back in the pages of JSA around 2004.

(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!”)

In 1968, the world was in a fragile state, a state of frightening change. There were even changes in the comics, changes too subtle for a clueless eight-year-old to discern. Justice League Of America # 63, the issue before “The Stormy Return Of The Red Tornado!,” had been the final issue of JLA penciled by Mike Sekowsky. Sekowsky had been the League’s regular penciler since the team’s debut in The Brave And The Bold in 1960, but he was now moving on to other projects (including Wonder Woman). His replacement Dick Dillin debuted with The Red Tornado’s debut, and remained at the job until his death in 1980.

The Red Tornado two-parter was the JLA finale for Gardner Fox. Fox had created the Justice Society in 1940, and the JLA in 1960, and he’d been the only writer the League ever had. Until he wasn’t anymore. In 1968, DC wanted fresh blood, younger blood, to help it compete with those pesky upstarts at Marvel Comics. Thank you for your service, Fox; you know the way out. The winds of change were approaching storm velocity. Batten down the hatches, heroes; it’s gonna be a rough one out there.

WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST RETURNS: R is for

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Black Widow

Long before the Black Widow movie was even in the works, I thought that it was great subject matter for a stand-alone movie, outside of The Avengers franchise. Through previous MCU adventures, we’ve gotten hints that Natasha Romanoff’s life had been spent as a covert agent and assassin. In my head at least, I imagined what a great opportunity it would be to explore her early adventures, a sort of spin on the Bond and Bourne movies. Awesomely, the Black Widow movie is all of that and more.

For my family, this was our first outing to the theater post-covid. While we felt comfortable knowing that the theater we were going to was still taking multiple precautions for safety, we opted to attend the first show on a Monday, when we knew attendance would be fairly low. For further peace of mind, we purchased a buffer seat on either side of us. Since it was a matinee, it was more than affordable to do.

It was so great to be back, sitting in comfy recliners, chomping on buttered popcorn again. Our family loves going to the movies, and the pandemic really put a damper on that. Needless to say, we were very excited as the house lights dimmed.

If there was any handwringing at Marvel or Disney, over whether or not Scarlett Johannson could carry her own movie, the opening weekend box-office take of $215 million squelched that. Serving as both the star of the film and producer, she was able to flesh out a hero that was in need of fleshing out, beyond occasionally remarking, “Just like in Budapest.” 

As the following was revealed in the trailer, Romanoff meets up with her sister, who appears to have had a similar upbringing as an operative. While the two initially go for each other’s throats, they are equally inquisitive about the sister that they barely know. Their mission turns into tracing their own family tree, and trying to separate fact from fiction.

I really don’t want to say anything more about the plot, because it twists and turns in a few unexpected ways. Coupled with unbelievably first-rate action sequences, Black Widow more than holds its own against any of the Cap, Ironman or Thor outings. In fact, I can’t wait to see it again.

By Dan Pavelich

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Boppin'

He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! (Memoirs From Back At The Drawing Board), Chapter 2: Hero

Dark and gritty, 1976. Eat your heart out, Frank Miller!

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist almost as much as I wanted to be a writer. I kept writing, and I got better at it; I didn’t really stick with the art to the extent that would have been necessary, so those skills never improved. 

I think that Hero, my 1976 attempt at dark ‘n’ gritty superhero storytelling, slightly predates Agent 690: Man Of Action!, the over-the-top action hero comedy detailed in this spot last time. Both were done for Mr. DeAngelo’s art class when I was 16, in my junior year at North Syracuse Central High School. They may have even been related assignments, like, “Do something serious, then do something funny.” Maybe not. That specific memory is not gonna repair itself, so we’re stuck with guessing. Whatever path its origin tripped over, let’s have a look at my oh-so-dramatic, tortured superhero called…um, Hero.

Looking back, I am reasonably certain that no one working at Marvel or DC was worried about competition from me. Actually, this would have been around the time DC rejected a Batman script I had submitted, a tone-deaf story called “Nightmare Resurrection.” “Nightmare Resurrection” was an inept attempt to slap together–the word “craft” would be inappropriate here–a tense and mature take on The Batman, and the attempt failed miserably. It was self-conscious, it was violent, and it–what’s the word?–sucked. I am not being too hard on myself in this assessment. Seriously, I’m a big fan of me. I’ve done a lot of work that’s pretty good, and I’m not shy about putting that stuff out there. But “Nightmare Resurrection” wasn’t good, and DC was right to reject it.

Hero was perhaps similarly misguided, but I think it kinda works as a one-off art project. I don’t think I ever had any intent or interest in expanding it into a complete story; it was meant to be a conceptual snapshot, a snippet of a tale already in progress, no beginning, no end. I like it in that limited context.

That said, Hero was obviously created by someone whose talent did not match his vision. That’s okay; I was 16, and trying things out is how you improve. The writing is stiff and pretentious, but I think it shows promise. The artwork is even stiffer, clunkier, but I view it now without shame. Well, other than the clumsy application of Wite-Out. That’s a little embarrassing. 

And sure, the faults are glaring: no backgrounds, not even an attempt at creating a scene for the characters to frolic and fight within; the tacit admission that backgrounds and scenes were well beyond my ability to execute; no evidence of a working knowledge of anatomy; shaky use of panel structure, inhibiting the flow of visual storytelling; the sloppiness of a would-be artist lacking any discernible finesse. But the effort’s there, the experiments with lighting and shading, the attempt to vary perspective. It was all mine. I wish I’d thrown in some swipes to make it look better, but if I did this work in the classroom, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with propping open a comic book so I could try to copy some Neal Adams figures, nor an anatomy book so I could try to get some plausible feel for how human beings should look in various poses and positions.

But again: it was mine. 

I was not a particularly good art student. Mr. DeAngelo didn’t discourage me, but I clearly lacked the motivation, dedication, and work ethic to hone whatever skill I may have had. Although I’ve never stopped drawing, I realized in high school that art could never be my primary creative endeavor. I could write, and I could improve as a writer. That possibility was potentially within my reach. I could never be great as an artist.

The package I submitted to DC also included art samples by my friend Mike DeAngelo, Mr. DeAngelo’s son, who was a far more accomplished art student than I ever was. Alas, those few pages weren’t sufficient to catch an editor’s interest, and they were rejected right along with the mistake I called “Nightmare Resurrection.” 

As noted in our previous chapter, Mike and I worked together on a few comic strips for the high school literary magazine The NorthCaster. I wrote, Mike drew. I think the depiction of The Shadow shown above was the only artwork I ever did for The NorthCaster. The Cafarelli-DeAngelo collaborations were all humor; I don’t think we ever tried to do any adventure or science-fiction for The NorthCaster. The closest we came was a one-page pirate story called “The Jolly Roger,” about a masked pirate who plundered other pirates, but it all built to a gag ending. It was also the impetus for Mike and I being kicked off the paper in ’75, when a dirty word made its clandestine way to the bottom of the published page. It was a stupid stunt, and I regretted it immediately. The editor wouldn’t even speak to me again after that, and I don’t blame her. Karmen, wherever you are, I am sorry. I was sorry then, and I still am. You were right to be pissed at me.

We were allowed to return to The NorthCaster the following year, chastened and humbled. We did a little more work together, but the new editor definitely preferred for me to concentrate on prose humor rather than comics. Mike graduated in ’76, and I did the same in ’77. We remained friends, though our paths eventually diverged, as paths tend to do. Those paths did merge a time or two in subsequent decades. That’s a story for another day. I have great fondness for the DeAngelo family, for Mr. and Mrs. DeAngelo, for Mike, for his sister Lissa (who became one of my closest friends after Mike graduated), and for their younger brother Mark, whom I barely knew, and who left this world at an ungodly young age. That’s a story I’m not qualified to tell. Its memory saddens me anyway. I caught up a bit with Lissa at Mr. DeAngelo’s wake in 2007, and Mike was one of the dedicated caregivers helping my Dad in hospice at the VA in 2012. Mike and I had a short conversation via Facebook just yesterday. The connection remains.

As years went by, as I wrote more and drew less, I continued to doodle, usually pictures of Batman. Go figure, and that still hasn’t changed. In the ’80s, I bought myself a sketch book. We’ll talk about that sketch book when He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! returns.

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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).

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Martin Pasko’s THE ALBATROSS (DC Comics, 1975)

When I heard the news that the comics community had lost writer Martin Pasko, one of the first things that came to my mind was The Albatross, a DC Comics superhero he was writing circa 1975 or so. 

It was an odd thing to think of so immediately in the moment. I have great fondness for a lot of Pasko’s work, including some of his Superman stories, his ’70s run on The Metal Men, his Doctor Fate, and his scripting (with Alan BurnettPaul Dini, and Michael Reeves) on the 1993 animated feature film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, which may be the single best Batman movie ever made. Given Pasko’s impressive resumé, The Albatross seems a pretty unlikely thing for anyone to remember when remembering Marty Pasko.

Especially considering the fact that The Albatross was never published.

The Albatross was a phantom project. Not only did it fail to see print, it was never even announced as forthcoming (unlike, say, Gerry Conway‘s also-unpublished Ninja the Invisible), probably never assigned to an artist, possibly never even completed by Pasko. The only reference I’ve ever seen made to The Albatross was in my own work, specifically in an Amazing Heroes article on humorous superheroes I wrote in the ’80s. You say you’ve never heard of The Albatross? It’s okay. Neither has anyone else.

The only reason I know anything at all about The Albatross is because I attended the Super DC Con in New York City, February 1976. I was 16 years old, and I was in my Heaven: meeting comics creators (including Jerry Siegel and Joe ShusterJerry RobinsonBob Kane, and my heroes at the time, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams), mingling with other fans, attending panels, watching old superhero movies, competing in a trivia contest hosted by E. Nelson Bridwell, and cruising the dealers’ room. It was an amazing experience, and I wish someone would publish an in-depth retrospective of that convention. Decades later, when my Dad was in hospice care and trying to express his gratitude for a strawberry milkshake I’d brought for him to enjoy, I joked to him, “C’mon, Dad–remember that time you took me to New York for the DC Comics convention? I’d say I still you a little more than a strawberry milkshake.” Dad smiled, and enjoyed his milkshake.

I attended nearly every panel the Super DC Con offered. If I missed anything, it wasn’t because I hadn’t tried. Lacking a costume for the costume parade, I joined in plainclothes, claiming I was supposed to be DC writer Elliot S! Maggin, who had written himself into a Justice League Of America story the previous summer. Although I was a hit, convention organizer Phil Seuling apologized that he couldn’t give me a share of the costume parade prize because I wasn’t, y’know, actually wearing a costume. That was fine; my prize was being congratulated by DC’s new publisher Jenette Kahn (who seemed genuinely amused as she shook my hand) and Maggin himself, who said that Kahn had just told him that, because of his JLA appearance, his name and likeness now belonged to DC. I’m not sure he was kidding. 

But I digress. Let’s get to The Albatross.

It was at one of the panels that the subject of The Albatross was introduced. I wish I could remember which panel it was, and who the participants were. I’m pretty sure writer Bob Rozakis was there–I have a vague memory of him responding to a friendly barb from his wife, with a “Thanks, Laurie!”–and maybe Maggin, Denny O’Neil, and Cary Bates? That would indicate it was the writers’ panel, which would have been a logical setting for Martin Pasko to talk about The Albatross.

I do remember Pasko looking around the audience to be sure a specific, unnamed DC editor wasn’t in the ballroom at the moment. Satisfied that the coast was clear, Pasko smiled and proceeded to tell us the brief saga of this DC Comics character no one would ever know.

The concept of The Albatross had been the brainchild of a DC editor. Pasko would not say which editor it was. Pasko was given the assignment to develop The Albatross, possibly as a back-up feature. In the editor’s premise, The Albatross was secretly a prison inmate, either a man convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed, or a former felon who’d seen the error of his ways (I forget which). Every night, as his fellow convicts were snug in their beds, with visions of reasonable doubt dancing in their heads, the prisoner we call The Albatross would break out of prison–every night–don his mysterious costume to battle the forces of evil, presumably succeed in boppin’ the bad guys, and then return to his cell, his nocturnal missions undetected by unsuspecting prison guards. Enter: The Albatross! BEWARE THE ALBATROSS!

Spine-tingling, right? No?

Yeah, Pasko also thought it was ridiculous.

But an assignment was an assignment. Pasko almost certainly was the one who named our jailbird protagonist The Albatross, and as he wrote the strip, he found he could not take it seriously. He decided to play up the absurdity, go for subtle laughs, a nudge in the ribs rather than a leap over a tall building in a single bound. The editor still saw this Albatross as a straightforward costumed crimefighter, and he kept rejecting Pasko’s attempts as inadequate. You don’t seem to be getting the right feel for this, the editor told Pasko. One presumes that all involved finally acknowledged a dead end and moved on. The Albatross could escape from prison with ludicrous ease, but his comic-book exploits never saw the light of day.

Pasko smiled again as he concluded his story. Those of us in the small crowd giggled in appreciation. And that was the end of what I’m sure was history’s only public discussion of this DC hero called The Albatross.

Who was the DC editor that came up with the idea of The Albatross? I guess it could have been Julie Schwartz, the legendary and visionary curmudgeon who had given Martin Pasko the nickname “Pesky Pasko” back in the ’60s, when Pasko was a comics fan writing critical letters to the editor. I’m not convinced it was Schwartz, and I don’t think it was Murray Boltinoff or Joe Orlando. My gut thinks it was Robert Kanigher, a veteran and notoriously irascible writer and editor who could occasionally come up with batshit-crazy concepts (perhaps most notably The Black Bomber, a schizophrenic black superhero who was secretly a white racist in his civilian identity, with neither personality aware of the other one; that would have been embarrassing and horrible, but writer Tony Isabella convinced DC to scuttle plans for The Black Bomber, allowing Isabella the opportunity to create his own original [and now iconic] character Black Lightning.) But if it were Kanigher, and he wasn’t happy with the writing, why wouldn’t Kanigher have just written The Albatross himself?

So I don’t know. The Albatross’s secret daddy could have been Kanigher. It could have been Schwartz. It could have been Stan Lee…no, wait, it couldn’t have been Stan Lee. Schwartz? Kanigher? Someone else? We’ll never know the answer to that one. Pasko did get to use the Albatross moniker for a different character in the ’80s, when he was writing the great Nicola CutiJoe Staton character E-Man for First Comics. In a parody of Marvel‘s successful X-Men comics, Pasko named his Dark Phoenix lampoon–what else?–Dark Albatross. I’m sure I was the only E-Man reader ever to see that name, and to think immediately of an earlier, unrealized Albatross mentioned once–once–at a writer’s panel during a DC Comics convention in 1976.

As that 1976 writers’ panel adjourned, a still-smiling Pasko went over lunch plans with his friends and fellow writers. My recollection of him is fixed in place in that moment: a writer and fan filled with good humor, aware of himself, but not in an ironic way. That’s my mind’s picture of Martin Pasko, and it’s a happy image to me. Here’s to The Albatross. Here’s to Pesky Pasko. Godspeed Mark, and thank you for the memory.

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You can support this blog by becoming a patron on Patreon: Fund me, baby! 

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).

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Boppin'

THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch

This was originally posted at Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) on July 11, 2018. As Marvel’s fantastic WandaVision TV mini-series concludes its run on Disney + today, we reprise this look back at how columnist Carl Cafarelli first discovered Wanda (and her brother Pietro) when he was a kid in the ’60s.

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 story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

You can’t keep a band together.
–Jazz legend Del Paxton

When you’re six years old, you may believe that some things can remain stable, unchanging. At least that’s what I thought when I was six, in 1966. The Beatles were The Beatles, four specific guys, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and they would always be The Beatles. The kids I knew on my block were the kids I knew on my block. Family was family: Mom, Dad, my brothers Art and Rob, my sister Nina, and an extended family of aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents. The death of my Aunt Connie, my Godmother, in 1965 was the first existential threat to my sense of comfortable consistency, but even though her passing shattered my little heart, and even though I now feared the possibility of more loved ones being taken away from me, I still had faith that things could remain in place, secure, unchallenged. Safe. When trouble appeared, Mom and Dad could chase it away. And on TV and in comic books, evil could be vanquished by superheroes. Like Batman and Robin, The Dynamic Duo–you could always count on those two. In the summer of ’66, I discovered an entire team of superheroes: The Mighty Avengers!

It was a back issue, a copy of The Avengers # 13 from 1965, but any book you ain’t read yet is a new book. It introduced me to my first superhero group, comprised of five characters I’d never seen before: Captain AmericaThorIron ManGiant-Man, and The Wasp. I was fascinated, and secure in the knowledge that this crusading quintet would always be there to thwart the machinations of nogoodniks like Count Nefaria.

And the next time I saw an issue of The Avengers, the old order had already, like,  changeth-ed. What the…?!

Captain America–then and now, my favorite Avenger–was still there. The Wasp was still there. Dumbass that I was, I didn’t realize that the big guy now called Goliath was good ol’ Giant-Man in a different costume. Thor and Iron Man were gone. In their place were three more unfamiliar heroes: the archer Hawkeye, and a pair of siblings, Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch.

Oddly enough, I think I took this confusing challenge to the status quo in stride. At six, I still didn’t quite understand all the busy little business occurring in superhero comics, especially in the comparatively denser experience of Marvel Comics. I just kinda held on, and exulted in my best thing ever: More superheroes! I think this second exposure to The Avengers predated my first exposure to The Fantastic Four, so Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch were likely the first brother-and-sister heroes I ever saw (before The FF’s Sue and Johnny Storm, The Invisible Girl and The Human Torch). A superhero family? I mean, I sorta knew Superman‘s pretty cousin SupergirlSuperboy‘s supposed older brother Mon-El, and had read a touching imaginary story about Lex Luthor as Superman’s brother. But sibling superheroes seemed new, perhaps even reassuring. In tumultuous times, what could be more reassuring than family?

I don’t recall which issue of The Avengers introduced me to Pietro and Wanda, the speedster Quicksilver and his pseudo-magical sister The Scarlet Witch; I suspect it was either The Avengers # 29 (June 1966) or the following month’s The Avengers # 30. But I felt an immediate attachment to them, and to Hawkeye, too. I accepted this new group as The Avengers. My Avengers. My next issue was probably The Avengers # 33 (October 1966), then # 42 (July 1967), and I tried to keep up with The Avengers as often as I could thereafter.

In the ’80s, writer and artist Mike Tiefenbacher said something to the effect that kids who are attracted to superheroes–and specifically to groups of superheroes–are drawn by the look of costumes as much as by any other factor. I agree. At six and seven years old, I thought Quicksilver’s bold white lightning bolt against a green body suit was mesmerizing, enhanced by his silver hair and its unique horn-like tufts. The Scarlet Witch was basically wearing a bathing suit with a cape, but my affection for her look wasn’t merely prurient, and it had more to do with her distinctive helmet, or whatever that was that framed her face. I didn’t know anything about Jack Kirby, and Dashing Don Heck was the artist on my earliest Avengers adventures anyway. It would be a few years before I learned that Wanda and Pietro had first appeared as conflicted minions of the evil Magneto in the pages of The X-Men, designed and rendered by King Kirby.

Anyway. Although I continued to follow The Avengers as best I could, I missed more issues than I read. Somewhere in there, Wanda and Pietro slipped away, Avengers no longer. I found them again as antagonists in The X-Men, and involved in an inter-title X-Men/Avengers crossover serial. New Avengers joined. One of them, a synthezoid called The Vision, won The Scarlet Witch’s heart, and they were married in the ’70s. Quicksilver’s costume coloring changed from green to a light blue. His mercurial temper and imperious nature resulted in Pietro not being an Avenger quite as often as Wanda was. I caught up on much of Wanda and Pietro’s back story in 1970, when my sister’s boyfriend gave me all of his old comic books, which included many early ’60s Marvels. By then, I no longer called my sister Nina; I had begun calling her by her real name, Denise, as she left home for college.

Things change. When I was a kid, The Avengers was my favorite comic book. I still buy new comic books, often including The Avengers, but the current run just doesn’t interest me, so I’m dropping it from my pull list this week. I’ve very much enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe interpretation of The Avengers, and look forward to many more MCU movies. I’m still a version of that six-year-old kid, enthralled when I saw Captain America throw his mighty shield, enthralled even now with the notion of good triumphing over evil, order over chaos, stability over disarray.

On Monday morning, I was a pall bearer at my Aunt Mary’s funeral. It’s okay; she is in a much better place now than she had been in the recent past. In the limousine, some of the other pall bearers were men who only remembered me from when I was a kid, their friend Maryann’s weird and pesky little superhero-obsessed cousin. Aunt Mary was 94, the last of my Dad’s siblings. They’re all gone now, beginning with their little brother Arthur (killed in a car accident as a child), then my Aunt Connie in 1965, Uncle Danny in 1970, Aunt Helen, Uncle Tot, Aunt Rose, and then Dad in 2012. My mother is in a nursing home. She wanted to attend Aunt Mary’s funeral, but decided she just wasn’t up to the effort on Monday.

As the limo made its way from funeral home to church to cemetery and back, I heard these men talk about their memories of Aunt Mary. More than one of them said that they would have probably wound up in jail if Aunt Mary hadn’t provided them with a place to hang out, a place to be, instead of being out there somewhere getting into real trouble. She was a superhero, as powerful with her Italian cookies and macaroni and meatballs as The Scarlet Witch with her hexes, and Quicksilver with his speed. Avengers assemble. Lemme tell ya: even the baddest of bad guys would have been no match for Aunt Mary’s cookies.

The Beatles broke up. Robin went off to college, leaving his mentor to fight crime alone back in Gotham City, just as my sister Nina–Denise–matriculated her way out of North Syracuse. Some of the kids on the block moved away. Family and friends–so many have been claimed by time, circumstance, and mortality. I’ve welcomed newer members of those groups, too. “The Old Order Changeth.” That was the title of the story where Captain America returned from an adventure to discover he was the last of the old Avengers, charged with the task of whipping these new recruits Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch into shape. Things change. The only constant is change.

Our faith in the value of what we knew, though…well, that doesn’t have to change. We remember. We believe. And we persevere, as our heroes taught us.

I may still have a tiny crush on The Scarlet Witch. She was just so damned cute in that helmet, or whatever the hell it was supposed to be.

Oh, it was a tiara! Of course!

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Inferior Five

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.

In the ’80s, a writer named Mike Tiefenbacher was working on some funny animal comics for DC. Tiefenbacher was using a pair of supporting characters he’d named Sacco and Vanzetti, but his editor objected, pointing out that kids wouldn’t get any reference to Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists convicted and executed (perhaps wrongly) in the 1920s. Tiefenbacheer agreed that, of course the kids wouldn’t get the reference, but that the names were inherently distinctive and funny in context, and that the kids would respond to that. (The editor won the argument. Editors always win arguments.)

But Tiefenbacher was right. Kids do respond to what seems funny, to what strikes them as delightfully silly, regardless of whether or not they understand the motivation, the relevance, or the back story. They just think it’s funny; they just know it makes them laugh.

I was seven years old when DC published Inferior Five # 1 in 1967. It was loaded with references I didn’t get, including direct parodies of the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show I knew about but didn’t really know. None of that mattered. Inferior Five was silly, busy, energetic, frantic fun. It was funny. It made me laugh; I understood that fact just fine.

The Inferior Five’s name was a take-off of Marvel‘s Fantastic Four, but that was where the similarities ended. The I5 was created by writer E. Nelson Bridwell, a DC staffer who’d been basically the first comic book fan to break into the comic book industry in the ’60s. The team had made three previous appearances in DC’s try-out book Showcase before debuting in its own title. I didn’t see any of the Showcase appearances until years later, but those issues revealed the back story that the earnest but inept members of The Inferior Five were all legacy heroes, the sons and daughter of various members of a Justice League doppelganger called The Freedom Brigade: the 97-pound (and still losing weight) weakling Merryman, the powerful but clumsy Awkwardman, the cowardly archer White Feather, the corpulent, slow-flying Blimp, and the beautiful, super-strong but dim-witted Dumb Bunny.

When I first met this intrepid quintet in Inferior Five # 1, the I5 was summoned by good guy spy outfit C.O.U.S.I.N. F.R.E.D. (Competent Organization Utilizing Scientific Investigation for National Fiend, Ruffian and Evildoer Defense)–it was the ’60s, and super-secret acronyms were everywhere–to thwart the evil machinations of H.U.R.R.I.C.A.N.E. (Heinous, Unscrupulous Rats and Rogues Initiating Criminal Anarchy and Nefarious Evil). By page 10, The Inferior Five (along with Merryman’s grandfather, the elderly Green Hornet counterpart Yellowjacket) were being debriefed by characters lampooning The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s Mr. WaverlyNapolean Solo, and Illya Kuryakin (Mr. IvanhoeCaesar Single, and Kwitcha Belliakin).

Did I understand all of this when I was seven years old? No. Did I find it amusing? Oh God, yes! Action! Chills! Spills! Thrills! Plus, I learned what the word “indolent” meant! My favorite line in the whole damned thing was when the evil “Tabby” Katz, seeking to avoid a beat-down from Dumb Bunny, held up an artificial plastic baby and implored, “You wouldn’t hit a woman with a baby, would you?” “No,” Dumb Bunny replied, “I’d hit her with a grown man!” And. She. DID!

I next caught up with the inept avengers in Inferior Five # 3 (guest-starring a Tarzan clone called Darwin of the Apes), and again from Inferior Five # 7 through its tenth and final issue in 1968. I absorbed the I5’s encounters with seemingly familiar characters like Cobweb KidAllergy QueenThe Kookie QuartetSub-Moron, and Iron Pants, plus SupermanGroucho Marx, and Norton from The Honeymooners. In the ’70s, I went back and completed my Inferior Five collection. And, with or without pastiches of other characters, I loved the individual heroes of The Inferior Five.

Um…especially Dumb Bunny. Even at the age of seven, a couple of years before sneaking my first look at Playboy, I understood the appeal of a beautiful woman wearing rabbit ears on her head and a cotton tail on her curvy derriere. See, kids understand more than ya might think.

From Dumb Bunny to Barbi Benton–a kid’s gotta start somewhere….

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Comics

Father Of The Brood

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Boppin' Comics

THIS MAN, THIS MARVEL: A Guy Named Stan

The late Stan Lee was the single most famous comic book creator in the history of the medium. That fact is not up for debate. We can argue about who was the greatest or most important, and we will, but there is simply no denying that Stan Lee’s name was the most widely-known. To the general public, Stan Lee was synonymous with Marvel Comics and the attendant Marvel Universe movies, with superheroes, with comic books themselves. If you ask passers-by to randomly name someone who created comic books, I guarantee you Stan Lee’s name would the most common answer, and by a margin as wide as The Negative Zone. ‘Nuff said.

For many, that very fame is what tarnished Lee’s legacy. But Stan Lee earned his fame. He didn’t do it alone, and others deserve a significant share of the credit, but anyone who denies that Stan Lee was an important figure in comics is, frankly, an asshole.

Stan Lee did not set out to have a career in comics. It was a paycheck, that was all. Stanley Lieber was an aspiring writer, still in his teens, when he went to work for Timely Comics in 1939; his cousin Jean was married to Timely’s owner, Martin Goodman. Lieber’s early duties were grunt work, and involved no creative endeavor. When these duties called upon him to write a text story for Captain America Comics # 3 in 1941, Lieber didn’t want to use his real name; he wanted to become a respected novelist some day, and he didn’t want to cheapen his name by association with cheap trash like comic books. Lo, there shall come a pseudonym: Lieber chose the nom du biff bang pow Stan Lee.

Stanley Lieber’s great American novel remained unwritten. Goodman put Lee in charge of this lower-tier comics line in 1941, with no real illusion of competing with powerhouse comics publishers like DellEastern Color Printing, and Detective Comics (the latter firm still with us, now called DC Comics). Lee stayed on as decades passed, as Timely became Atlas Comics and eventually Marvel. In 1961, the success of DC’s superhero revivals prompted Goodman to order Stan Lee to come up with Marvel’s answer to The Justice League Of America. So Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four. The rest is history.

In the early ’60s, Stan Lee was writing most, if not quite all, of Marvel’s output, while simultaneously serving as the line’s editor. That’s a lot of work. For the sake of efficiency, the stories were created by what came to be known as the Marvel method: Lee and an artist would work out a basic plot, the artist would transform these ideas into pencilled pages, and Lee would script captions, dialogue, and–where appropriate–the occasional FOOM! or SKRRAKK! It was a true collaboration, perhaps not always (if ever) 50-50, but the end result was what mattered.

The buzz about Marvel seemed to generate almost immediately. The success of The Fantastic Four led to more Marvel superheroes, to The Incredible HulkThe Mighty ThorThe Invincible Iron ManThe Astonishing Ant-ManThe Amazing Spider-Man, to revivals of Captain America and The Sub-Mariner, two characters that predated Lee’s debut. It lead to The Mighty Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men. The comics attracted an older audience, including college kids, and even celebrated filmmakers like Federico Fellini. This was the cheap trash that Stanley Lieber didn’t want to dignify with his real name? No, not by then. This was pop art. This was a revolution. This was The Marvel Age Of Comics.

Lee was a natural-born pitchman, and some of this buzz should be attributed to his charm and his (perhaps unconscious) marketing savvy. It wasn’t just hype–the comics were solid, and the audience embraced them–but the experience was enhanced by the rapport Lee established with readers. Lee created an illusion of camaraderie within a mythical Marvel bullpen: Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, Sturdy Steve Ditko, Jovial Joe Sinnott, Dazzling Dick Ayers, Jazzy John Romita, Rascally Roy Thomas, Mirthful Marie Severin, Dashing Don Heck, even including secretary and receptionist Flo Steinberg and a hapless fictional staff member named Irving Forbush. They were all stars in a way comic book writers and artists never really were before. And not just stars; to Marvel readers, they were family. By the end of the ’60s, Marvel was actively and very successfully competing against its seemingly stodgy competition, and on its way to surpassing the shocked and stunned management of DC Comics as the industry’s undisputed leader.

Stan Lee received most of the credit. He deserved a lot–a lot–of that credit. But the sheer amount of credit that was accorded Lee alienated some of his collaborators, and understandably so. Lee was the editor and the bylined writer, but his creations were not solo works. Steve Ditko, the artist and co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, was the first to bristle and depart, ditching Marvel in 1966 for lower-paying work elsewhere; Ditko would never work with Lee again.

And in 1970, the very same year that The Beatles broke up, Jack Kirby left Marvel in favor of work at DC. Marvel had been the house that Stan and Jack built. It was like John Lennon joining The Rolling Stones, or Paul McCartney becoming a Beach Boy. Kirby’s frustration with Lee, his resentment of the degree to which Lee and Marvel publicity seemed to downplay Kirby’s own boundless imagination and contributions to the plots and storylines that created Marvel Comics (above and beyond the sheer brilliance of Kirby’s nonpareil artwork), led Kirby to create a DC character called Funky Flashman, a soulless, insincere snake-oil huckster inspired by Lee.

I’m sure that Stan Lee was bewildered by all of this, probably hurt, certainly puzzled. Hadn’t he always given the artists credit, when there was no pre-existing industry standard for that? He was the writer, of course, and Lee saw himself as the primary creator of all these characters. He wasn’t quite wrong, but he was most definitely not quite correct, either. There’s no Spider-Man as we know him without Ditko. There’s no Marvel Universe without Kirby. It’s not just because of their art, but in the way each helped to develop and define these characters before any of them appeared on a spinner rack. They were co-creators, and they deserve credit as co-creators.

We discuss all of this today, not to cast shade upon Stan Lee and our collective memory of him, but to acknowledge his…I guess his humanity. Stan Lee was a legend; he didn’t have feet of clay, but he was subject to the same inconsistencies and issues of pride and ego as any of us. But his were writ large, the great responsibility that comes with great power. He was indeed human.

And comics would not have been the same without him.

You disagree? You’re wrong. Like Casey Stengel managing the New York Yankees, Lee utilized the array of talent at his disposal to make things happen. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and all of the other All-Stars of the Marvel bullpen united to build something larger than themselves, to create, to craft a universe so vast and engaging that it will continue to thrive, to thrill, and to touch the imaginations of millions and millions of people for generations yet to come. Stan was The Man. He couldn’t have done it alone, and he didn’t. But it wouldn’t have occurred at all if he weren’t there.

When the news of Stan Lee’s death broke yesterday, my daughter Meghan texted me: That one kind of hurts. Marvel Comics weren’t her thing as a kid; Meghan’s favorite comics were Archie and his assorted pals ‘n’ gals, her favorite superheroes The Powerpuff Girls. The first Guardians Of The Galaxy movie hooked her, and she became an avid fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stan Lee’s cameos in each of those Marvel movies solidified his ongoing connection with anyone who ever loved the fantastic, the amazing, the astonishing, the incredible, the uncanny. Stan Lee’s legend is invincible, but it stings to realize that those cameos will end. I’m sure he filmed some cameos we still have yet to see in Marvel films to come, and audiences will feel the tears form when we see him again on that big screen. 

I identify as a DC Comics guy. But I loved Marvel Comics too, and I still do. Reading Stan Lee’s Soapbox and those Marvel Bullpen Bulletins when I was a kid helped form the wonder-filled image in my head, the picture of what a magic world comic books could be, what a magic world they had to be. That part? That part was all Stan Lee.
Stan Lee passed away this week at the age of 95. I never met Stan Lee. But I knew him. So did you. You always will. Now, Stan Lee is reunited with his beloved wife Joan. And Stan and Jack are together again, amends are made, and the lessons they’ve learned will lead to the greatest comics Heaven has ever seen. We can only imagine. Face front, True Believers.  Excelsior, Mr. Lee.

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DEAR SUPERGUYS (or: I Was A Teenaged Comic Book Letterhack)

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 CharltonArchieHarveyGold KeyDell, and later from Atlas and Warren. Besides my cherished costumed crusaders, I read funny animal, war, Westernhumor, 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 SackWhere Monsters DwellStar Spangled War StoriesThe Mighty Marvel WesternForbidden Tales Of Dark MansionTomb Of DraculaUncle ScroogeSgt. Fury And His Howling CommandosThe Lone RangerThe PhantomThe Phantom StrangerMaster Of Kung Fu. VampirellaThe ScorpionArchie’s Pals & GalsDennis The MenaceThe Super Cops. TarzanConan The BarbarianFruitman, God help me. Plop! SpoofDoomsday + 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 JLAeditor 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.

For dramatic purposes, the part of Yvonne will be played by Ms. Yvonne Craig

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 Lewis did 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.

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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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