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THE LOVEABLE LUNKHEAD RETURNS

This was originally distributed privately to patrons of this blog on December 1st, 2018. This is its first public appearance. You can become a patron and support Boppin’ (Like The Hip Folks Do) for just $2 a month.
A recent online exchange about DC Comics Silver Age characters, cosmic crisis crossovers, and a popular real-life entertainment figure who starred in his own long-running DC Comics title inspired this flight of fancy. 

It was yet another crisis. You’d think such things would be rare, but they seemed to happen every summer, sometimes even more frequently. The world, the universe, multiple universes in danger, and the superheroes must save us. Worlds will live. Worlds will die. The universes will never be the same. Again. And again. And again.

But this crisis was different. This time, they invited me.

I’m usually excluded from these things. I used to be as big a star in our four-color world as any of the big guys. I don’t mean just my (if you must) “real” world counterpart, the comedy legend with the telethons and the movies and the temper, the adoring fans in France, the gurgled cries of LAAAAAAAAAYdeeeeeee! I mean me–the comic-book me–mingling with the Caped Crusaders and the Man of Steel, the Amazon Princess, the Scarlet Speedster. I was the Lovable Lunkhead. I met the prettiest girls. I had amazing, silly adventures, and the kids kept coming back for more, every other month. I did all right: Forty issues with my martini-guzzling ex-partner, and then 84 more–that’s 84!–without him, a total of 124 issues from 1952 to 1971, That was a longer sustained success than most of the superheroes in the freakin’ League, man. I was a king of comedy in the funnybooks.

Funnybooks. Nobody calls ‘em that anymore. No one wants any comic in their comic books. They just want another crisis. The real me was celebrated. Comic-book me was forgotten.

I don’t know what made this crisis du jour unique from the infinite previous crises. Maybe because all the heavy hitters were taken off the table before the action even started, out of commission at the hands of a mysterious grandmaster pitting champion against champion for the fate of all reality. Or something like that—I’ve never really understood the macguffins tossed around in these secret superwar things. I only knew that I’d been called to battle, as had dozens of presumably lesser heroes. It was like sending in the walk-ons during an NCAA basketball tournament. The bench was empty; we were the last hope standing.

I’m not a fighter. I’d tell you I never shied from a fight, but one look at my flailing panic in desperate situations would expose that lie. We chosen champions (such as we were) were supposed to fight each other—God knows why—in order to save the multiverse or some such mishigas. Most of the others were bona fide superheroes and adventurers; they expected me, a comic-book avatar of a popular film comedian, to compete with that? Oy….

My pesky nephew Renfrew and my housekeeper Witch Kraft accompanied me, though Renfrew disappeared immediately—knowing him, I figured the little monster was probably working up a high-stakes gambling pool—while Witchy zeroed in on some hero’s sturdy sidekick to flirt with. Everyone presumed I’d be dusted in the first round; presumed I’d be dusted in the first round. This never happened to Buddy Love, man.

My first opponent was a superhero, a stalwart member of a whole Legion of such people, but get this: his super power? He could eat anything. That’s it, I swear, hand to God. He could eat metal bars, walls, and plants and birds and rocks and things. Especially rocks. Man, even I wasn’t afraid of that. He charged at me, and I bent down to tie the loose laces of my sneakers. Safety first. Mr. matter-eatin’ boy overshot, and went careening into our picnic table, landing face-first into Witch Kraft’s Super Secret Recipe mocha, jalapeño, and sardine potato salad á la mode. Even an ability to eat anything wasn’t enough to spare my opponent the gastronomic indignity of that concoction, and I had won my first round.

Then I won my second. And my third. My fourth…?! Crazy. I would trip and my opponent would knock him- or herself out. Slapstick is my super power. I made it to the final round, and I knew that would have to be the end of the line for me.

Why? Because my opponent in the final was the daughter of that badass Dark Knight guy and the buxom cat burglar who used to cause strange stirrings in his utility belt. Trust me; it was a thing that led to a fling, and a second-generation superhero. Little Miss Batcat was one of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighters ever known. My luck had run out for sure.

She whispered something in my ear before the battle. At first, I was thinking to myself, You smooth Don Juan–if only Dean could see you now! But then I heard what she was saying, and I understood my role.

I came out fuming. Bellowing! Beating my chest and swaggering the swagger of the clueless and doomed. She remained tightlipped, all business, making it look good. I tried to make it look good, but my sheer haplessness hampered my façade. I nearly decked myself, not once, not twice, but three times, oh LAAAYdeee! She rolled her eyes behind her mask, but managed to keep saving me from myself. Finally, I seemed to have gotten in a lucky shot, and she crumpled to the ground, apparently defeated.

I had won.

I HAD WON!

The crowd was speechless, dumbfounded. From behind a cosmic curtain, the hidden orchestrator of this contest emerged, masked and hooded, hopping mad. YOU?!, he cried in anguish. YOU won this double-bag super-duper crossover crisis mega event? YOU? He was much shorter than I would have expected a cosmic criminal mastermind to be. I lost a friggin’ FORTUNE in bets on this! YOU WERE AT A BILLION TO ONE ODDS! The only way I can maybe break even is to destroy the universe and do a reboot…ULP!

The miscreant’s dastardly soliloquy was cut short by a savage blow from my former opponent, the Batcat chick. Yeah, she’d thrown the game, but for noble purpose, giving herself the opportunity to play possum and then get close enough to bring the bad guy down. With the dramatic flourish of a true comic book champion, she unmasked the mastermind as…

…Renfrew? MY NEPHEW RENFREW…?!

That kid just ain’t right in the head. Another get-rich gambling scheme. Ponzi had nothing on Renfrew, lemme tell ya. And rest assured: after Witchy and I got Renfrew home, he wasn’t able to sit down for a solid week.

The crisis was over. The vanquished champions recovered, and even more champions from across the multiverse showed up for the after-party. Hell, I think Dean was there, which was my cue to exit. Always leave ‘em wanting more.

I don’t get to participate in crises. Maybe that’s best. I’m a hero—no, scratch that, not a hero. I’m a comic book star from a different time. Fans look back and think because people laughed I must have been a joke. But I wasn’t a joke. I was an A-list star. Readers loved me, and my comic book ran for almost twenty years. They were good comics, too. It’s a shame so few will ever read them again. So I fade away. There’s no dark and gritty revamp of me. There’s no back-to-basics retread, no breathless hype that everything you thought you knew about the Lovable Lunkhead is wrong. There’s just the memories. I’d thank you for those, but that line belonged to another comedian turned comic book star. Instead, I sing: When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high. You’ll never walk alone.

Oh. And I have a hot date tonight with the Batcat chick. The ladies still dig a guy that can make ‘em laugh. The Lovable Lunkhead rises. The Lovable Lunkhead returns.

***

Thanks to Michal Jacotfor providing the spark.

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Buying Comic Books Since 1966

Except for a brief pause when I was in college, I have been buying comic books since I was six years old in 1966. Over 55 years! I’d read comic books before that–older siblings, don’tcha know, armed with issues of Metal MenTales To AstonishOur Army At WarSuperman, and an 80-Page Giant starring Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane–but in ’66 the Batman TV series inspired an obsession with superheroes, an obsession I’ve never seen any need to outgrow. And that interest manifested in a need to own superhero comic books.

As a kid in the ’60s, my “buying” of comic books generally meant I would pick a four-color prize off the spinner rack and either Mom or Dad would supply the twelve cents necessary to complete the transaction. The earliest specific purchase I can identify is Batman # 184, plucked from the rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation in the summer of ’66. Tales To Astonish # 84 followed in short order, located and acquired at (I think) a feed store in Verona, MO, with a copy of Superboy # 132 purchased in there somewhere, from the same store that sold us the above-mentioned Batman. It’s possible I got the Superboy before I got the Batman. Six-year-old me was less than exhaustive in keeping records of this stuff. Slacker.

I don’t know if these were my first comics purchases–and, as noted, they definitely weren’t my first comic books–but they are the first two I can ID with certainty as books I selected myself. (My 1966 Signet Batman paperback may have been my first comic book purchase, though it wasn’t technically a comic book. I scored that one at either Switz’s variety store or J.M. Fields department store back home in North Syracuse, NY, presumably prior to the summer visit to grandparents in Missouri. Unless it was after that, in which case it wasn’t first. Damn my record-keeping skills at six!) 

In North Syracuse, my go-to purveyor of funnybooks was Sweethearts Corner on Route 11. A (very) partial list of comics I got at Sweetheart includes Justice League Of America # 55-56, Fantastic Four # 73, Not Brand Echh # 4, The Spectre # 1, The Avengers # 42, Judo Master # 96, Teen Titans # 11, X-Men # 36, World’s Finest Comics # 162, Wonder Woman # 175, Inferior 5 #1, Doom Patrol # 115, Metamorpho  # 15, Spyman # 1, Green Lantern # 57, House Of Mystery # 173, and JLA # 61 (with “Operation: Jail The Justice League!”). My Aunt Rose bought me a copy of JLA # 57 at a drugstore in Liverpool, the next suburb over from North Syracuse. Every grocery store, drugstore, or other retail outlet with comics on display became a destination for me to increase my stash o’ treasures. Adventure Comics # 368. The Amazing Spider-Man # 48. Action Comics # 356. Aquaman #  30. Dell Comics‘ oddball Super Heroes # 4. A three-pack of King Comics titles at Clancy’s Silver Star. MORE! 

A cover-compromised copy of Superboy # 129 (my favorite individual issue of any comic book when I was a kid) was my introduction to coverless comic books (and yet another possible candidate for my first comic book). Many, many more examples of such contraband would follow. In the late ’60s and well into the ’70s, and even the ’80s, I grabbed these illegal, discounted comics as often as I could, with VanPatten’s Grocery in North Syracuse my biggest supplier.

Summers were a fantastic time for kids who loved comics. The annual team-ups of the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America were obvious highlights. A 1967 trip to Vermont netted me World’s Finest Comics # 168. Before traveling (usually to Missouri again), Mom and Dad would let me pick out a stack of new comics to read on the trip. During an extended time away from Syracuse in the summer of 1968, that same Missouri grocery store took in my 12- and 25-cent payments in exchange for  Marvel Super Heroes # 15-16, Not Brand Echh # 10, Avengers # 56, Avengers King-Size Special # 2, Sub-Mariner # 7, Superman # 207, and DC Special # 1. Extending the ’68 vacation’s route to a California visit, I picked up Adventure Comics # 384 and Aquaman # 41, the latter over the objections of a female second- or third-cousin who didn’t want me to buy a comic book in her presence. (This was an early step in my long history of being occasionally puzzled by the opposite sex. And by, y’know, people. Of any gender.)

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, summer vacations offered a seemingly endless bounty of comic book purchases, from Astonishing Tales # 2 and a giant-sized issue of The Brave And The Bold in Florida in 1970 through Show-Me State acquisitions of Secret Origins # 5, JLA # 107, and…it’s a long list.  A rest stop at the Greyhound station in Cleveland got me Marvel Feature # 1, the first official appearance of the Defenders. The Springfield, MO bus depot provided DC’s The Shadow # 1. I loved ’em all.

Other than trades with comics-collecting pals, and a bounty of tattered ’60s books passed on to me from my sister’s boyfriend, I don’t remember the what or where of my first back issue purchases. Mighta been at the flea market in Syracuse, or at North Syracuse’s wonderful World Of Books. I was an old hand at back issues by the time I got to the Super DC Con in New York City in 1976. Among other dealers’-room transactions at Super DC Con, I picked up Funnyman # 5, which was one of the oldest complete (i.e., not coverless) comic books in my collection at the time. I still have that one.

Throughout all of this, I continued to buy both new and coverless comics at various stores in the Syracuse area. Page counts varied, prices increased. The familiar 12-cent cost became 15 cents by the end of the ’60s. 15 cents became 25 cents, then slid down to 20 cents before resuming the 25-cent level. Onward and upward. DC had 100-Page Super Spectaculars for 50 cents, later for 60 cents, before that format collapsed. 

I kept on buying comics through high school, and into my freshman year of college in 1977-78. Writer Steve Englehart‘s run on Batman in Detective Comics # 469-476 (which I purchased in installments at Gold Star Pharmacy in North Syracuse and at Liftbridge Bookstore in my college town of Brockport, NY) knocked me out, but it spoiled me for everything that came after that. I hadn’t outgrown comic books. I had just moved on.

I came back to comics after graduating in 1980. It wasn’t an immediate resumption of superdoer fandom, but I’d retained my interest in superheroes (manifested in exulting in Christopher Reeve‘s portrayal of Superman on screen). I stayed in Brockport for a couple of years after attaching the B.A. to my name, and I started visiting a new local store called Comic Book Heaven, “Where Fantasy Reigns But You Never Get Wet.” Frank Miller‘s work on Daredevil and Marv Wolfman and George Perez‘s revival of The New Teen Titans hooked me anew, and I’ve been buying my comic books again ever since.

Living in Buffalo from 1982 to 1987, I was within walking distance of the fabulous Queen City Bookstore, where I regularly stocked up on new issues, and scored a ton of coverless and/or crappy condition ’60s DCs out of the bulk bin. Returning to Syracuse in ’87, I became a regular patron of Twilight Book And Game Emporium, owned by Bob Gray, one of my old comics-trading pals from the early ’70s. When Twilight closed at the turn of the century, I switched to Comix Zone in North Syracuse. I pick up new comics at Comix Zone every week.

A few recent acquisitions from Comix Zone.

What do I buy at Comix Zone? Well! My current pull list includes all of the AHOY Comics titles, plus BatmanThe Amazing Spider-ManBuffy The Vampire SlayerSupermanJustice LeagueAction ComicsDetective ComicsThe Other History Of The DC UniverseMoney ShotFantastic FourFantastic Four Life StoryGroo Meets TarzanThe MarvelsCheckmateShazam!Superman BatmanAmazing FantasyInfinite Frontier, and more. I’m way behind in reading them–I have two very tall stacks of comics awaiting my attention–but I keep getting them, and I enjoy most of them.

I rarely buy comics from any resource other than Comix Zone. Other than the (very) occasional eBay purchase, the only notable recent exception was when DC published a line of 100-page comic books for sale exclusively at Wal-Mart. Hadda have some of those, and it was kind of a kick to buy comic books from a mass-market retailer, just like when I plucked comics off the rack at Sweetheart in the ’60s and ’70s…

…or grabbed an 80-Page Giant (featuring Tales Of The Bizarro World) at the grocery store in Aurora in 1968…

…or snapped up The Brave And The Bold # 78 at a Piggly Wiggly in Kansas…

…and The Brave And The Bold # 91 (featuring artist Nick Cardy‘s absolutely gorgeous rendition of the Black Canary) at the GEM store (Government Employees’ Market) in Syracuse…

…or discovered the Golden Age Plastic Man via DC Special # 15 at a drugstore in the Northern Lights shopping center… 

…or badgered Mom to take me to Carl’s Drugs in Liverpool, for the specific drugs this Carl craved, like Adventure Comics # 428…

…or bought the sultry Vampirella (while also sneaking peeks at Penthouse) at White-Modell…

I actually got this one at World Of Books, but…close enough!

…or E-Man # 10 at a pit stop in Arkansas…

…or The Joker # 1 and an issue of Charlton Comics‘ Yang at a convenience store in Clifton Park, NY…

…or Shazam! # 1 and Howard The Duck # 1, both hoarded by deluded speculators across the country, both purchased by me off the rack, both at Gold Star Pharmacy, the former in 1972 (when Gold Star was still Henry & Hines) and the latter in 1976. Speculation? Comic books are for reading and cherishing, you fools…

…or Detective Comics # 438 from the literal stack of Detective Comics # 438s at Two Guys department store… 

…or Doctor Strange # 50, with art by Steve Englehart’s former Detective Comics collaborator Marshall Rogers, discovered at a candy shop on Victory Boulevard while visiting my girlfriend on Staten Island…

…or my truly crappy-condition Batman # 100, courtesy of an antique shop in Brockport.

The comic books of my life. The Wal-Mart books sure looked cool, too, and they were part of that decades-long tapestry of colorful, action-packed wonder.

I’m not a collector anymore. If I don’t like a book, I stop buying it, and I often get rid of a comic book after I’ve read it. I’m a fan. I still have some of the books I bought as a kid, for 12 cents or 25 cents or whatever. The prices are a little higher now; they start at $3.99 to $4.99 and go up from there, though some retailers (including Comix Zone) offer discounts for subscribers. It’s okay. You can’t assign a value to dreams, and comic books remain the stuff that dreams are made of. Screw the Maltese Falcon. Gimme my comic books.

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Superheroes On TV

Batman was not the first superhero I saw on TV. That honor belongs to the Man of Steel, the Metropolis Marvel, Kal-El, the one ‘n’ only Superman. Everyone knew Superman, and in the early ’60s, everyone had watched Superman on TV in reruns of The Adventures Of Superman, the venerable ’50s series starring George Reeves. Concurrent to this, all of the kids in my neighborhood also watched chapters of the old Flash Gordon movie serials, as well as Astro Boy cartoons, both of which were shown every afternoon on The Baron And His Buddies, the popular kids’ show hosted by Syracuse’s own local vampire, Baron Daemon. If you also include the Mighty Mouse and Popeye cartoons we all watched, like, everywhere, then it’s safe to say that all the kids in North Syracuse had plenty of exposure to televised superheroics well before the debut of the Batman TV series in January of 1966.

Nonetheless, it was the success of Batman that paved the way for more superheroes on TV. Prior to Batman, nearly all of the super adventures we saw were old–second-hand entertainment, already enjoyed previously by our elder siblings, or even an earlier generation. Superman was from the ’50s; Popeye from the ’30s through the ’50s; Flash Gordon from the ’30s. Astro Boy was roughly contemporary, but a syndicated import, not, y’know, fresh Amurrican entertainment. At the beginning of 1966, Batman was really the only superhero starring in brand-new televised exploits; he would have plenty of company by the end of that year.

(This new superhero fad had its first effect on advertising. I recall seeing superhero motifs in TV commercials for Bactine and Lucky Stripes chewing gum, and I loved ’em. The images of Stripeman and a flying, bat-caped Bactine container were as much a part of my TV experience in ’66 as The Monkees were.)

Almost all of the new superhero shows would be animated. In September, the new Saturday morning cartoon schedule on CBS included The New Adventures Of SupermanSpace GhostFrankenstein Jr. And The Impossibles, and even The Lone Ranger, starring another character we all knew (like Superman), but who couldn’t be called a superhero because he was, y’know, a cowboy. On weekday afternoons, we were treated to The Marvel Super Heroes, a series of serialized adventures starring a rotating roster of Captain AmericaThorIron ManSub-Mariner, and The Hulk. These were shown in Syracuse on a show called Jet Set, alongside a collection of whatever other cartoon goodies Channel 5 could get its hands on (including Sinbad Jr And His Magic Belt, in which our seafarin’ hero gained super strength via the wonder of his titular magic belt).

There were live action superheroes, too. Most notable of these was The Green Hornet with Van Williams and Bruce Lee, though there were also two comedy superhero shows, Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific. I was aware of Captain Nice, and even owned a Captain Nice comic book, but never managed to see an episode of the show. I did watch both The Green Hornet and Mr. Terrific, but not many people did; all three series were short-lived.

More animated superheroes followed: Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man on ABC, The Superman-Aquaman Hour Of Adventure on CBS (the latter including additional heroics from The FlashGreen LanternHawkmanThe AtomTeen Titans, and The Justice League of America), and a variety of other super-doers created for the small screen: Mightor! Super 6! Mighty Heroes! Birdman! The Galaxy Trio! Super-President! Surely, evil must tremble before this assembled might of right!

The cancellation of the prime-time Batman in 1968 signaled the ebb of the public’s interest in superheroes. Although Batman quickly returned in a new cartoon series in the fall of ’68, the costumed hero fad had run its course.

With the plethora of superhero movies and TV shows available now, it’s odd to look back and realize that it did once seem like a fad that had ended. In the early ’70s, Superman and Wonder Woman made (perhaps incongruous) guest appearances on a Saturday morning cartoon series based on the kids from The Brady Bunch; an ABC Saturday Superstar Movie called “Popeye Meets The Man Who Hated Laughter” teamed the super sailor-man with other characters from the King Features stable, including Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician; and Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Batman and Robin united in a new cartoon series called Super Friends.

Me? I was 13 by the time Super Friends debuted in 1973, and it wasn’t at all what I was looking for in televised superhero entertainment. I wanted a gritty new Batman series–no, not “Batman,” “THE Batman!” I wanted something that would reflect the perceived (by me) maturity of the 1970s Batman comics stories by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams; in my mind, Medical Center star Chad Everett was born to play The Batman in a serious crime drama, with British actor Christopher Lee as the megalomaniacal Ra’s al GhulThat’s what I wanted, not kids’ stuff like Super Friends.


Alas, I never really liked any of the live action superhero TV fare of the ’70s. Well, at the time, I confess I did kinda like the atrocious Wonder Woman TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby, and the awful late night TV adaptation of the musical It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman. The original Captain Marvel had become one of my all-time favorite comics characters, but I couldn’t warm to his banal escapades in Shazam! Lynda Carter was a freakin’ knockout, but I found her Wonder Woman series to be too campy, and this young man had outgrown camp, see? IsisSpider-ManThe Incredible Hulk? None of these was ever quite what I had in mind.

It took decades before there would be a superhero TV series that would captivate me. I loved Smallville, the tale of the boy who would be Superman, from the moment of its debut in 2001. Nowadays, I have all the superhero TV entertainment I could ever want, from all those DC Comics shows on The CW to Marvel shows on Disney + and Netflix. From feast, to famine, to an endless bounty, all within my lifetime. Up, up, and away.

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Dennis O’Neil

Comics is a visual medium. But no matter how dazzling the individual images, how pretty the pictures, how powerfully the lines have been drawn, the story is what’s at the heart of it all. Without a story, all we have are pinup pages. Maybe they’re great pinup pages. But it’s not really comics without a story. Writer and artist. You need both to create comics.

Sometimes the writer and the artist are one and the same, from Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman to Carol Lay. More often (especially in commercial comics), there is a division of labor. The writer writes, the artists–usually more than one artist–pencil, ink, and letter, and also color if the work’s not for black-and-white publication. When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to be one of the writers. I wanted to be like Dennis O’Neil.

Dennis O’Neil had been a journalist from Missouri before breaking into comics as a writer in the ’60s. O’Neil initially wrote for Marvel Comics, then for Charlton, and began writing for DC Comics in 1968. It was at DC that O’Neil made his name.

I’m not sure of when I first became aware of O’Neil, nor can I identify which comic offered my first exposure to his work. Maybe it was in Beware The Creeper, or possibly Justice League Of America, neither of which would be among my favorite O’Neil runs. There was also his underrated work on Wonder Woman, chronicling the adventures of a de-powered Amazon Princess. I can tell you I loved his early ’70s work on Superman, the “Kryptonite Nevermore!” run that moved Clark Kent out of The Daily Planet to new duties as a TV newsman. O’Neil brought an unexpected sense of verisimilitude to his portrayal of the Man of Steel. I was 11 and 12, 1971-72, and I thought it was just the greatest thing ever.

It would not be O’Neil’s only claim to greatness. With artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, O’Neil took over Green Lantern in 1970, bringing the titular cosmic hero down to Earth to team with a costumed archer named Green Arrow, an also-ran superhero who’d hung around without much distinction since the ’40s. This dynamic creative team infused Green Lantern/Green Arrow with new energy, excitement, and an embrace of social relevance that drew the attention of mainstream media. Understand: Green Arrow was strictly a second-banana character up to that point; O’Neil and company revamped this Emerald Archer into the model for the popular character we know today. You don’t get to the Arrow TV series or the subsequent successful DC superhero shows on The CW without O’Neil, Adams, and Giordano showing the way. O’Neil also revived The Shadow for DC, wrote the return of the original Captain Marvel in Shazam!, crafted the magnificent Superman Vs. Muhammed Ali one-shot, and much later turned in some stunning work on The Question. He did more work for Marvel, as well. This isn’t even a thumbnail of O’Neil’s c.v.

But O’Neil’s most important and lasting work in comics was on Batman. No–make that THE Batman. Following the cancellation of the campy 1966-68 Batman TV series, the once-formidable Caped Crusader had become a joke. Batman’s tarnished reputation could only be salvaged with a return to his pulp roots. O’Neil wasn’t the first to consider reestablishing the shadows in The Batman’s world; Neal Adams had started adding noirish visuals to Batman’s appearances in the team-up book The Brave And The Bold, and writer Frank Robbins and artist Irv Novick (inked by Giordano) had already separated Batman from Robin the Boy Wonder by sending the latter off to college, all prior to O’Neil’s first Batman script.

Nonetheless, it all came together when O’Neil began to chronicle the goings-on in Gotham City. Whether working with Adams or Novick (both almost always inked by Giordano), O’Neil’s Batman was undeniably The Batman. From the early ’70s onward, this vision of The Batman as The Dark Knight influenced nearly every subsequent interpretation of the character. O’Neil created a new nemesis named Ra’s al Ghul, revived Golden Age villain Two-Face for the first time since the ’50s, and turned The Joker from the buffoonish Clown Prince of Crime that he’d become back to the murderous harlequin created by Bill Finger (and, I guess, Bob Kane, maybe) in 1940’s Batman # 1. 

Dennis O’Neil saved Batman. The lasting impact of his Batman writing is beyond measure; if not for O’Neil, you can be damned sure that Batman–THE Batman–wouldn’t have become the multimedia juggernaut we now know. It wasn’t just O’Neil, of course. Still, none of it–the movies, the mania, the pop cultural preeminence, none of it–could have ever existed otherwise.

I was blown away by O’Neil’s Batman. I’d been hooked on superheroes in general and Batman in particular by the TV show in 1966, when I was six. As an adolescent and young teen, I read O’Neil’s Batman and exulted in the thrill of a Dark Knight, a Batman I could believe in. 

I was 13 or 14 when I decided I wanted to be a writer. Specifically, I wanted to write comics. I wanted to write Batman. Goddamn it, I wanted to write Dennis O’Neil’s Batman.

I failed at that. And that’s okay. The effort made me better, gradually, over time. Dennis O’Neil was one of my biggest influences as a writer. If you have ever enjoyed anything I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, for this blog or elsewhere, it all comes from me wanting to be Dennis O’Neil, and Harlan Ellison, and Woody Allen, and Mark Shipper, and Max Allan Collins, and…yeah, it’s a long list. The list starts with Dennis O’Neil.

Dennis O’Neil passed away last week. He was 81. Comics fandom mourns. Gotham mourns. If The Batman also mourns, his emotions remain hidden in the shadows that are his home, his mask and cloak concealing any hint of his thoughts. He sees a signal in the night sky, and knows he is needed elsewhere.

And he is gone. As if he were never there.

Thank you, Dennis O’Neil. My life and my imagination would have been much poorer without you. Thank you. Just…thank you.

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Justice Society Of America: The Movie (a random notion)

Some years back, I had a vague notion of a major motion picture starring comics’ original super-team The Justice Society of America. It was just a series of passing fancies, not something I would have wasted time trying to plot out or conceptualize to any degree. If someone ever attempts to make a JSA movie, there is no plausible chance that I would have any involvement whatsoever. (I mean, y’know, beyond buying a ticket.)

But back to the fantasy. My ideal JSA movie would be set around 1940 or so, prior to America’s official entry into World War II, but with much of the rest of the world already engulfed in that conflagration overseas. The villains would be Axis, because I like adventure stories that involve punching Nazis.


Practical considerations (a factor even in fantasy) would preclude the use of characters like SupermanBatman, or Wonder Woman, plus the original Captain Marvel. We would probably steer clear of some Golden Age characters that share a name with modern heroes–specifically The Flash and Green Lantern–but would be free to use Hawkman or The Atom if we wish.

My vision of this story is slightly more down-to-earth, so I wouldn’t really want to use the most powerful characters. I might or might not want to use Hawkman, but I would use the 1940s Atom, who was a short guy with a penchant for fightin’ but no super powers.

My most integral JSA member is an unlikely one: Ma Hunkel, The Red Tornado (often derisively nicknamed “The Red Tomato”). Yeah, I know she was just comic relief (a brawny homemaker who put on an ad hoc costume to bop bad guys in her working class urban neighborhood), and that she wasn’t really a member of the Society anyway.  But Ma Hunkel is essential to me, more so than any other character we could use; I just like the idea of a headstrong, stubborn Jewish tenement scrapper takin’ on Adolf’s boys and unceremoniously kicking their collective ass. Repeatedly.

(Brief aside: I’ve written elsewhere of my introduction to The Red Tornado, and it’s worth repeating this passage describing what I would do if I were given a chance to write a Justice League/Justice Society crossover: “Although Ma Hunkel never appeared in any of the old JLA/JSA meetings, I would have definitely wanted to include her if I’d had an opportunity to write such a story. I picture a scene of a group of non-powered JLA and JSA members, huddled in hiding while surveying an enemy army, Batman urging caution as he comes up with a plan of attack, only to see ol’ Red Tomato break ranks and dive-bomb headfirst into battle. Green Arrow joins the fight, saying ‘I like this dame!,’ and Wildcat replying, ‘Told ya so!'” Yeah, that’s the Red Tornado I wanna see in a JSA movie.)

Hey, speaking of Wildcat, he would also be an essential JSA member for this film. Another scrapper–specifically a champion heavyweight boxer–I see Ted “Wildcat” Grant as a character connected to his own working class upbringing, possibly from the same general neighborhood as Ma Hunkel. We may as well call it Suicide Slum, and potentially bring in Simon & Kirby‘s hero The Guardian and his kid gang The Newsboy Legion.

I would also ignore comics chronology and bring in The Black Canary as a founding JSA member, the blind hero Dr. Mid-Nite, and possibly The Vigilante, too. Ol’ Vig was never in the JSA–he was in The Seven Soldiers Of Victory and The All-Star Squadron–but the idea of a singing radio cowboy by day/masked crimefighter by night is irresistible to me, and it carries out my long-standing belief that any adventure story can be improved instantly just by adding a cowboy. 

So: The Red Tornado, The Atom, Wildcat, Black Canary, and maybe Dr. Mid-Nite, The Vigilante, or The Sandman (DC’s answer to The Green Hornet). Or maybe wealthy overachiever Mr. Terrific, to ultimately fund our fledgling supergroup, former Fawcett Comics hero Spy Smasher to help combat the Fifth Columnists, and/or Air Wave to rally the public via radio. Let’s add Hourman and Starman (two heroes enhanced by science, the former with chemically-induced strength and the latter with hi-tech weaponry), and reserve some real cosmic heavy-hitter for the film’s climax. Either the dormant ancient Egyptian power of Hawkman or the mystic might of Dr. Fate could be inadvertently resurrected by the Nazis as their evil plan literally blows up in their goose-stepping kissers. And a Society of Justice is formed to defend America and fight for justice. A swell bunch of guys and gals!

I could also see bringing in folks like the aviator Blackhawk or Green Lantern’s cabbie buddy Doiby Dickles as supporting characters. I’m tempted to include the JSA’s comic relief member Johnny Thunder, but his magic genie Thunderbolt would feel out of place, so best to skip Mr. Thunder entirely. Potential sequels could have any Golden Age DC/Fawcett/Quality hero we want, from Midnight to Liberty Belle to Bulletman and Bulletgirl to Merry, Girl of 1000 Gimmicks. And Ibis the Invincible. I’d love to bring Captain Marvel and the power of SHAZAM into the mix, but even flights of fancy require some slight tether to the real world.

And yeah: no script, no plot, no outline here, no grand idea of a superhero movie that needs to be made. And it’s not the Justice Society of the comics, so purists would cry foul. It’s just a notion, and an ill-defined one at that.

But wouldn’t it be cool? Keep ’em flying, JSA!

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