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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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REJECTION ACCEPTED: Trying (And Failing!) To Write For DC COMICS

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.

The team-up that will never be: Captain Infinity and The Batman

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.

DEATHSONG! Her music will kill you.

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.

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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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