Deep Space Nine: s06 e13 – Far Beyond The Stars

Who’s Who?

Well, I guess I must be suffering some sort of burn out on Deep Space Nine because I just couldn’t get into this episode at all, and it’s one of those episodes that’s not just a fan-favourite but a favourite of so many members of the team that made it, including many of the actors themselves. Clearly, it’s me, then.

‘Far Beyond the Stars’ is another of those get-the-cast-out-of-character episodes, as Sisko undergoes a practically episode-long hallucination in which he’s a staff writer on a 1953 SF magazine, facing racial prejudice. It involves every member of the cast and a bunch of recurring characters out of costume and, in several cases, out of make-up.

Basically,the peg is that Sisko is approaching burn out. The Dominion War is still ticking over in the background, with wins and losses, but the latest loss – the Cortez and it’s 400 strong crew, especially its Captain, Quentin Swofford, an old friend of Sisko – has him talking of stepping down.

Immediately he suggests that, he starts seeing people in 1953 clothes walking around where they aren’t. Bashir diagnoses strange synaptic potentials akin to those in the season 5 episode, ‘Rapture’ when he was having visions sent by the Prophets (not so much a hint as a crowbar to the back of the neck) and, presto changeo, he’s in 1953 New York where he’s Benny Russell, employed by Incredible Tales magazine.

Everyone’s there, so it’s spot-the-unmake-upped- actor time (I didn’t get Aron Eisenberg, Jeffrey Combs or J. G. Hertzler and I was incredibly slow about Rene Auberjonois and Michael Dorn) whilst the story hammers on its theme of racial prejudice. The hammering is relentless, but then again so was the racism. I don’t doubt there’s a social faction that would kick-off against snowflakes and SJWs, but just because the present day isn’t as relentlessly open and universal as the world depicted here doesn’t mean it no longer needs saying.

To be honest, I found the unrelieved nature of the depiction to be dramatically unbalanced: over and over and over again. In another context, where you could focus on this story without having Deep Space Nine looking over your shoulder constantly, it would have worked far better. Instead, it was never possible to escape the awareness that this set-up was doubly unreal, a fiction within a fiction.

Anyway, Benny Russell is inspired by a drawing of a space station very much like DS9 to write a powerful, engrossing story. About DS9, and it’s captain, Benjamin Sisko. Everybody loves and admires it, but it won’t get published. Because the Captain is a negro.

To jump briskly forward, after a tour of Benny’s world and constant reminders of the restrictions inherent on black people (Marc Alaimo and Jeffrey Combs as two violently prejudiced cops,who beat the living shit out of Benny at one point), he gets his editor to accept the story (and possibly the six sequels he’s already written), in return for his altering it slightly, to make the whole thing a dream. Whatever gets it into print. But the owner orders the whole print run pulped, the magazine’s going to skip a month and Benny’s fired. We all know why.

Throughout the hallucination, Sisko Senior keeps popping up as a Minister, preaching about the way ahead and insisting Sisko keep on his path, that he writes the words. He keeps mentioning the prophets (there’s that crowbar again). Benny has become fixated on his Captain Sisko, his DS9, this future he’s imagined. This latest setback unhinges him.He cracks up, onscreen, as if this block on publication of the story is an attempt to stop this entire future, the world of DS9, in which black and white and every other shade are equals, from ever happening.

Sad to say, I found it unconvincing, even when supported by Sisko’s musings in the close, which attempts to tip the show into metafiction, by wondering if Deep Space Nine is actually nothing more than the fiction it is, created by Benny Russell?

It’s Jorge Luis Borges’ paradox writ large: who is dreaming who? Is Sisko dreaming Benny, or vice versa? For me, it completely flops. Firstly, because when Benny goes into his meltdown, talking about ‘creating’ DS9, in the sense of a Creator creating Reality, he’s doing so as a character we know to be at a lower level of existence, the centre of a story-within-a-story. The same goes for Sisko’s musings: in an isolated story, you can play this angle for all it’s worth, and leave the reader genuinely uncertain, but after 136 previous episodes of Deep Space Nine, you’re pushing credibility to suggest that might be a fiction. A Tommy Westphall ending doesn’t work unless it is the end.

When Sisko recovers from the hallucination, his synaptic potentials have cleared up, even without a take-two-of-these-and-see-me-in-the-morning (crowbar time…) and he’s decided to soldier on. Phew, I was worried there…

The whole thing was a vision from the Prophets, to show Sisko that some fights have to be fought even in the face of frustration, defeat and loss. But really the episode was about the cast dressing down and playing outside their characters, with the framing story a loose-fitting McGuffin. That the story chosen was an important issue is impressive, but paradoxically it was weakened by being played in the context of Deep Space Nine, where it could have n serious impact by virtue of our knowledge that by the end it would all be reset, nothing gained, nothing lost, all that anger, frustration and heartache meaningless.

Or is it all just me?


Saturday SkandiThriller: Below the Surface episodes 3 & 4

Louise Falck, negotiator

We have now advanced rapidly to the halfway point of this extremely well-made series, and what has continued to be a taut, and highly engrossing thriller is starting to develop elements branching out from a mere plot. In a way, this is something of a limited series in comparison to the best of Denmark’s previous TV efforts, but I’m enjoying it far more than anything else from that part of the world since at least 1864.

Two more days have passed in the hostage crisis, and TTF (or maybe that should be CTF as I seem to be working off a different set of sub-titles this week) are inching nearer to the hostage-takers, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, after a false move in episode 3.

That saw the elderly, unshaven Leon (played by the only actor I’ve seen before, Tommy Kenter, who was in Follow the Money 2) collapse into a diabetic coma. Alpha agreed to allow a medic down to treat him, but TTF used this as an opportunity to get one of their own into the underground lair, to be eyes and ears for a raid. This back-fired badly: a trip-wire set off explosions, which set off shooting. TTF had to back out with four men shot, not fatally at any rate, but Silas of the hostages copped a bullet in the side.

This became a proving moment for Marie, the nurse. We found out from her flashback that she’d be blown out for indecision (peculiarly apt in Denmark…) and she was out of her depth and failing in trying to save Silas, until she finally pulled herself together and set-up a makeshift blood transfusion which kept him alive long enough to be got out.

Leon got his insulin shots and was restored, and he flashbacked in episode 4, to life in Thailand with a not-so-young Thai prostitute who he planned to bring back to Denmark, but who wouldn’t go with him, destroying his dreams. That spurred him to break out the cage when flirty Denise pushed her luck too far with the psycho hostage-taker and was in the process of being raped. Leon averted the rape at the cost of a rifle-butt to the ribs and consequences to be seen. I anticipate a Denise flashback in episode 5: let’s see how right I am.

The story-line twisted at the end of episode 3. After last week’s shooting of Adel, Naja Toft had lost her nerve. She couldn’t believe they wanted another interview, which would have been with Leon, but at the last moment, she bottled it, switched off her phone.

This carried over into episode 4, with Naja withdrawing entirely, apologising to the families, leaving. But in a move I thought suspicious, one guy – rugged, self-sufficient, reasonably hamdsome or at least personable, followed her out. He said he was Leon’s son, he said he wanted to take over the fundraiser, he quite clearly fancied her. They spent the day together, talking, exchanging stories, meal, wine, and as could be seen coming, they spent the night together. Naja got an evidently enjoyable shag out of it, and her confidence back. And he walked away, pausing only for a quick mobile phone call to reassure Alpha that she’ll take his next call…

See, I was right.

It’s about the only cliched thing so far, and it does serve to deepen the waters as to just what Alpha wants, where this is heading and a large dose of What Is This All About?

I’ve avoided mention thus far of the traumatised Philip and the lovely Louise. After the error in authorising Cramer’s ill-fated raid in episode 3, Philip has kept a little in the background in episode 4, leaving S.P. and Claasen to trace back weapons equipping and get closer to the background, though he plays a brief blinder, empathising with a PTSD veteran in such a way as to have the lovely Louise fearing it wasn’t an act. He insists it was. Mind you, he’s using a back channel to check up on whether his torturer Ahmad really is dead, and when the word comes back that he really is, Philip is forced to open up the way she’s been wanting him too, confessing as to his experiences with Ahmad, and his fears that in believing Ahmad is Alpha, he is cracking up.

It adds a depth to what is going on that has previously to this been more hinted than actual, but which tees things up very nicely for the second half of the series.

I’m torn between wanting Alpha to be Ahmad, because so much is being built into this that I’m worried about how they’ll pull this off if it is someone unrelated, and being intrigued at the prospect of being blindsided and the ingenuity of how they’ll pull it off. With only four episodes left, some very clever plotting is going to be needed to draw everything into a satisfactory conclusion, but you know when you’re in good hands as readily as you know when you’re in bad ones, and I’m expecting to be kept in edge to the final edge.

Two more weeks. It’s hardly fair.

Film 2018: Arsenic and Old Lace

I have a bit if a thing for 1940s black-and-white films. Not all of them, and it’s a mixed bag of drama and comedy, but I think what I like them for are qualities that itr’s impossible to bring to filming nowadays, and indeed for decades since. For want of a better word, I call that ‘innocence’.

These are films being made at a time when films were the biggest form of mass entertainment. They were being made on Hollywood sound-stages and sets with a degree of artificiality that the technology of the time couldn’t render natural, in an era when censorship and the twin forces of public taste and morals heavily restricted what could and couldn’t be said and done. As a direct consequence, the writers, directors and performers had to use a higher degree of wit, intelligence and skill to convey things that couldn’t openly be said or shown.

It was a time when films set out to invoke the imagination of an audience that was in on the act and was open, indeed wanted, their imaginations stirred, instead of today when colour, screen-trickery, CGI and changed mores see the audience’s imagination satiated whilst being ever more blatant about how they are being tricked by unreality.

We can’t make films like Arsenic and Old Lace any more because nobody in the film business believes the audience will take them seriously, even as comedies. But this film is a classic and it will go on being one for a generation or two yet. What will happen to it when people lose the ability to see in black and white, I shudder to think.

Arsenic and Old Lace was first released in 1944, though it had been shot a couple of years earlier, over the winter of 1941-2. It was based on the very successful Broadway play of the same name, and included several of the actors from the long-running hit, but was not allowed to be shown until the play ended its run. Cary Grant stars, after Bob Hope and a couple of others were unavailable, and Priscilla Lane is co-billed with him, though her role is considerable smaller. Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre are the villains, Massey playing the role Boris Karloff played on stage, which explains the in-joke of several references to his character looking like Karloff.

In modern parlance, the film/play is about a pair of serial killers, and a most unlikely pair at that. It’s based on a real-life incident that dramatist George Kesselring was originally planning to treat seriously, before he was persuaded to turn it into a black comedy, at which point it becomes a brilliantly pitched farce that enables Cary Grant to show off an incredible range of double-takes, delayed reactions, slow burns and plain hamming it up that sails the story onwards without stress through a near two hours.

Basically: Grant is Mortimer Brewster, dramatic critic and anti-marriage disparager, and he’s just getting married to the lovely blonde girl-next-door, Elaine Harper (Lane, looking wonderfully, innocently lovely). Elaine’s a minister’s daughter, who lives just the opposite side of a small graveyard from the Brewster house, where Mortimer was brought up.

The Brewster’s are a long-established Brooklyn family, who came over on the Mayflower. The house is owned by spinster sisters Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair from the stage version) who look after Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander, ditto). Teddy believes himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt, but the Misses Brewster are sweet, helpful and utterly sane.

Or so you think.

Mortimer’s had the taxi stop off so Elaine can pack her bags, he can tell his aunts (who’ve seen it coming) and then it’s off to Niagara Falls, the great big soppy cliched romantic husband. There’s a lot of kissing already going on and from the look in Mortimer’s eyes there’s going to be a lot of other stuff rapidly following on (from the mock-suspicious way Elaine’s treating that look, she can’t wait). Patrolman Brophy’s handing his beat over to rookie Patrolman O’Hara, and it’s the nicest beat in Brooklyn, and introducing him to the Brewster sisters. O’Hara’s a would-be playwright who’s going to be so delighted to meet Mortimer, he’ll be oblivious to everything else. Oh, everything’s entirely rosy.

Until Mortimer discovers the dead body in the window seat.

That’s Mr Hoskins. Aunt Abby did that one herself. Teddy’s informed that there’s been another death from yellow fever so he goes off to ‘Panama’ (the cellar) to dig another ‘lock’. Later, they’ll hold a service. It all started with a worn-out, lonely old man who had a heart attack whilst eating a meal with the Misses Brewster. Ever since, they’ve regarded it as their mission of mercy to give that kind of restful happiness to all other old friendless, family-less men. They drink elderberry wine. One gallon of elderberry wine, with one measure of arsenic, half a measure of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.

Mortimer can’t believe it, even through the entirely matter-of-fact manner, and slightly self-congratulatory air, his aunts adopt. At first he thinks it’s Teddy, in fact he’s convinced of it, but he has to believe them and that makes it worse.

Mortimer’s got to control this situation, which means pushing Elaine out of his mind (and the house and, possibly, his life: after all, he’s a Brewster too, and madness runs in the family). Got to get Teddy committed and off to Happydale Sanatorium!

Unfortunately there’s a fly in the ointment, if you didn’t already guess at the number of flies already buzzing. Mortimer has another brother, Jonathan, who takes it into his mind to turn up now, dragging in tow his partner, Dr Einstein, a small, cowering, permanently drunken plastic surgeon. Jonathan’s an evil, sadistic killer, by the way, also an escapee from an asylum for the Criminally Insane, and Einstein periodically alters his features. Just before the last operation, he’d seen this film with Boris Karloff in it…

Oh, and they’ve got a dead body with them that requires burial, a Mr Spinalzo.

Put everything together and watch it fizz. And boy, does it fizz.

Grant is simply brilliant, overplaying everything gleefully (I really cannot imagine Bob Hope is the part: well, actually I can, and he’d have made a god job of it in his own manner. But not like Grant). Raymond Massey is equally brilliant as Jonathan, underplaying in contrast and using his face and his sense of sinister presence to underlay things with a genuine frisson of unpredictabilty. Lorre plays a looser role, perpetually snatching snifters till his schnapps runs out, and cowering helplessly, to the point where you can’t begrudge him his miraculous escape at the end. And Hull, Adair and Alexander bring an inner and natural conviction to their daffy parts that keep you from ever doubting the story’s black premise.

At no point does the film ever treat the Brewster sister’s murders as anything other than a joke. Jonathan’s equally long history of murder (Dr Einstein has a good giggle over how the old ladies, without ever leaving Brooklyn, have exactly matched his globe-trotting score) is treated in exactly the opposite manner. We even see this onscreen: a Mr Gough responds to the ladies’ ‘Room for Rent’ notice before being chased off by an appalled Mortimer, much to their petulant dismay, but when Jonathan binds and gags Mortimer and plans to spend a little creative time with him, before the oblivious O’Hara interrupts, it’s creepy as hell: Massey makes it plain that Jonathan is going to enjoy this…

In the end, in a frantic ending, everything is resolved in true farce fashion: no, it isn’t: there are still thirteen bodies in that body, but nobody resents the flim-flam. Mortimer discovers he’s not a Brewster after all, by blood that is (he’s the son of a sea-cook, a joke that will shortly be impenetrable). Of course, the concerned Elaine nearly blows it all by discovering the bodies for herself, and as she’s the only witness to the graves who might be believed, Mortimer has to shut her up by kissing her, to which, after things have gone on for a sufficiently long time, she surrenders most willingly.

Arsenic and Old Lace was apparently taken pretty directly from the play, and it’s pretty much stage-bound in its set, with the one big room accounting for most of the action, and a few, short excursions to other settings, most of them scenes external to the house. It makes a virtue of this artificiality, further delinking its morbid subject from any strict response. I must have watched it a dozen times, especially on Sunday afternoons and now it’s taken its place in a Sunday morning Film 2018, and I’ve still laughed my head off.

We will have lost something indeed if we ever forget what makes this funny.


The Infinite Jukebox: The Tams’ ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’

A discussion at work, behind my back, mentioned TAMS, which means certain equipment in a Telephone Exchange. It also meant an old memory for me of when The Tams got to no. 1 in the UK in 1971.
Almost fifty years later, I still can’t understand it. ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’ was a Sixties obscurity, and if The Tams were known for anything, they were known for the song ‘Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy’. That had a bit of swing to it, you could imagine people dancing to it, and if that had charted, I’d have put it down to Wigan Casino, Northern Soul and all that stuff I didn’t understand until many years later.
But not ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’. It’s a slow, repetitive, song, to a shuffling beat, about not wanting to get involved with a girl notorious for taking up and dumping young men, who’s now looking at the singer. It’s style lay somewhere between doo-wop and non-Motown soul, without leaning far enough in either direction.
What drove it’s sales, I have no idea, then or now. It slowly climbed the top 30, eventually reaching number 1, for three weeks, after which The Tams themselves arrived in Britain to promote their unexpected success, and were given the unique accolade of a Top of the Pops performance, after the record had slipped down from no. 1.
That’s what’s showing below. You may wish to take note that the group was a five-piece, lead singer and four backing singers, one of whom looks not quite all with it, and who disappears from the stage halfway through the song, to everybody’s puzzlement.
I hated it at the time, and I don’t say I like it now, outside the purely nostalgic aspect. For some reason, there is an incredible range of mostly unsuccessful 1971 music that appeals to me, as anyone following my Lost 70s posts will already know.
But what qualifies this strange song for a slot on The Infinite Jukebox is a history that only I may remember.
In those far-off days, the Manchester Evening News used to publish a Top 10 singles every week. Though I read it each week, I thought little or nothing of it because it was usually nothing more than a mirror of the BBC Top 10, the chart everyone used to rely on. But it must have been based on local sales because, one week in the summer of 1971, I was shocked to see two new entries that were not only not even in the BBC Top 30, but of which I’d never even heard.
The first of these, in at no. 3, was Curtis Mayfield, with ‘Move on Up’, which would chart several weeks later, and eventually peak at no. 12. The other was The Tams, and this shot in at no. 1!
I don’t think they stayed more than another week each and then normal service was resumed but I was intrigued by the presence of these two songs, so against the run of the mill. But you couldn’t just whistle up songs when you wanted them in 1971, you had to wait for Radio 1 to play them (in the evenings, I would try to get Radio Luxembourg, after Radio 1 shut down at 6.00pm, whilst my mate Steve C swore by Radio North Sea International, which I could never raise a signal from).
And these two songs started to get airplay, they hit the National Chart, and the Tams laboured but got to no. 1, displacing Diana Ross, and then being overtaken by Rod Stewart.
Some years later, I was told a story that I have no means of checking, but with the evidence of that MEN Top 10 I have no reason to doubt. Each year, a travelling fair came to Cringle Fields in Levenshulme. These were parkland and playing fields adjoining Errwood Road, diagonally opposite Levenshulme Girl’s School, the opposite number to Burnage High School for Boys, where I attended. We’d drive past the Fair, in Mam’s car, or on the bus, though I never went to it, and if I wanted to travel there, it was about five minutes on the bus. I met my old friend Linda for the first time in five years opposite Cringle Fields, in August 1971,to which I owe a couple of lifelong friendships.
But the 1971 Fair had been and gone by then. The guy who chose the records to blare out had picked an obscure Sixties track to play, over and over again. People started to ask what it was and where they could get it. It shot to the top of the Manchester charts. The action persuaded the record company to re-issue it. Sales picked up nationally. The result we know.
That’s the story as I know it, and I have the memories of the facts that underline it. Not a million miles from where I lived, on a road I travelled incessantly. I suppose it could only have happened in 1971.

American Gothic e20: Strangler

This episode is the last of the lost, the four episodes unaired in America on American Gothic‘s original run, though shown on Channel 4. It’s almost the last of the few memories of that initial viewing in the mid-Nineties, and it is, for the most part, what I remembered it to be, something awkward and contrived. Given that it features the infamous Boston Strangler, the real Boston Strangler, raised from the dead, I can understand why it would have been kept from the airwaves, though the episode also contained a major development that would have governed everything else to follow.

Basically: Merly is trying to get Caleb to forgive his father, but he can only say the words, not mean them. Their little meeting in the graveyard is interrupted by Lucas Buck, who wants rid of Merly once and for all. When he tries to seize her, she uses her powers to blast him back a dozen feet. So, after she and Caleb have gone, Lucas summons up a figure from the dead to do the job for him: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.

Gareth Williams, playing DeSalvo, does a massive job, aided by the fact that Gary Cole is absent for over half the episode, leaving the show to concentrate on the Strangler. He plays DeSalvo as a quiet, content man, secure in himself, self-aware, popular and empathetic, but nevertheless struck with an insane compulsion, of which he is, if anything, proud. Never at any time does he try to justify or explain himself.

Now Lucas is off to a Convention, leaving Ben Healy in charge. DeSalvo is only supposed to murder Merly – and when the dead kill the dead, they go into oblivion – but his obsession is too powerful. He attacks and kills the pretty, short-skirted nurse Sara (Amy Parrish), he attacks Gail Emory after seeing her briefly in a short skirt but is prevented by her resistance and Ben’s arrival, and he kills another nurse in the hospital itself.

In the meantime, posing as a refrigerator repairman, he befriends Caleb, nudging him towards calling on his sister.

With Lucas out of town, and Deputy Floyd imploring him to just wrap it all up until Buck gets back, Ben starts hesitant, but gradually grows in authority and intelligence, to the point that, by episode’s end, he has a hard-working, thrumming Sheriff’s office, operating thoroughly. The man has authority and respect. Naturally, Lucas shuts it all down: back to normal.

But that’s merely a stinger. The climax comes at the boarding house. DeSalvo has dropped all pretences: unless Caleb calls Merly, DeSalvo will use his knife. Merly comes, ready to defend her brother and, when her powers prove ineffectual against the Strangler, ready to forfeit her soul for him. DeSalvo has his hands round her throat, Caleb is trying to drag him off, she’s fading out, and then comes the moment that changes everything.Caleb screams ‘Noooo!!!!’, and his powers hurl DeSalvo across the room, against the wall, and burn him up from the inside, leaving only smoke-shadows against the wallpaper.

Merly has only sadness. Caleb has saved her soul, but at the cost of using powers that will destroy his soul. She touches Caleb’s face. They can now touch one another. She says “Goodbye.”

Effective as it is in that game-changing ending, and in showing Ben as both competent and a viable point of opposition to Lucas Buck, twenty years later ‘Strangler’ still feels like an awkward contrivance. The Boston Strangler is the Boston Strangler: Boston, Massachusetts, up North, Yankee country. He has nothing to do with Trinity, South Carolina. By dragging in a real-life, and extremely notorious figure, reality in Trinity is warped out of shape. It feels more like an episode done because someone wanted an episode starring Albert DeSalvo than anything organically part of American Gothic‘s true arc. For all that he’s actually a ghost here, the Boston Strangler is too real for everybody else beside him, and it ultimately damages the episode.

But it sets up the final two episodes, as we shall see.

Michael Fleisher R.I.P.: A Study in Notoriety

Sometimes, when someone famous dies, it overshadows the passing of someone else who deserves attention. The day Sir Laurence Olivier died was also the day Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and many more, died, which was a much more personal loss for me, and one that, understandably, went virtually unnoticed.

Stephen Hawking’s death today has coincided with that of a figure who is much less deserving of attention than Mel Blanc, a former comic book writer who has not been involved with the field for decades, but who once achieved an unwelcome form of notoriety that played out when I was fully involved with comics.

This was Michael Fleisher. He left behind him a reputation that, for a time, he seemed to revel in, but which ultimately did him no good. Fleisher got his start in writing comics in the mid-Seventies. He had been installed at DC’s offices to research a proposed six volume history of comics, and from there started to get story assignments.

His first regular series became one of the most notorious of all time in mainstream comics, the revival of DC’s Forties character, The Spectre, in Adventure Comics.

Adventure was being edited by Joe Orlando, who had recently undergone a street mugging at gunpoint that left him furious and frustrated. The Spectre was the spirit of murdered Police Detective, Jim Corrigan, sent back by (impliedly) God, to fight evils with vast supernatural power.

The Spectre had been revived in the Sixties, as part of the Golden Age revival spearheaded by editor Julius Schwartz, where he had been treated as an almost God-like being. Fleisher proposed to go back to the root of the character, as a ruthless dispatcher of criminals. Orlando was just in the mood for that.

Fleisher played around a bit with The Spectre, taking him back to the original state, where Corrigan and The Spectre were the same being and both a ghost, ignoring the development that had seen Corrigan’s body restored to life and become a host for The Spectre. He introduced a new girlfriend in heiress Gwen Sterling (replacing original girlfriend Clarice Winston) and allowed her, unlike Clarice, to know that Jim was a ghost. And he thoroughly confused which Earth this was all taking place on by having a rookie cop respond to a sarcastic reference to ‘Clark Kent’ with a ‘Gee! Are you really Superman?’

But these were peripherals. Fleisher’s series was about one thing, and one thing only: how the Spectre slaughtered the villains. There was a formula to the series: sadistic and brutal crooks would prey on ordinary people without conscience: the Spectre would come along and kill them. The game was in what twisted manner, wonderfully illustrated by the great Jim Aparo, the Spectre would act. These included expanding a hairdresser’s scissors to massive size and cutting him in half, turning a fake crystal ball merchant into crystal an knocking him over to shatter and, most sickening of all, turning a man into wood and feeding him through a woodcutter.

The series was selling, but it was also arousing a lot of fan opposition. Apparently, Publisher Carmine Infantino, after taking a lot of heat for the series, looked for an excuse to end it and the moment the sales dipped, it was gone.

The series ran 10 issues. Twelve scripts had been purchased and two were left undrawn, which was exceptional behaviour for DC Comics in that era. They wanted The Spectre dead, which he had been all along, to be fair. Actually, the series ended appropriately with a two-parter in which Corrigan pleaded with God to restore his humanity, God did so without telling him, Corrigan promptly got shot, believing he was still a ghost (in this series, even God was a sadistic bastard), and then he got killed and went back to being The Spectre.

Fleisher was upset about the criticism of his work on this series, protesting that he had done nothing that The Spectre hadn’t done in the Golden Age. That may be so, but there is a world of difference between that being done in primitive, stiff art by Bernard Bailey and high-detail, polished slick art from Aparo.

And I am moderately confident that Bailey and co-creator Jerry Seigel never wrote a scene in which the Spectre chops a woman into seven separate parts in a single panel.

I’d bought and enjoyed the series, which appeared in the first year I came back to reading comics. I didn’t make a point of following Fleisher’s later career, though I was aware that he had acquired a high reputation after taking over DC’s scar-faced western bounty-hunter, Jonah Hex. I never read any of this series, but Fleisher was again noted for the twisted aspects of a Special he wrote, featuring Hex in his sixties, being killed by being shot in the back, like Wild Bill Hickock at the poker table, and his body being stuffed for an exhibition at a Wild West Fair. Not exactly John Wayne, nor even Clint Eastwood.

Then there was the matter of Fleisher’s (only?) novel, Chasing Hairy. Yes, from the dubious title onwards, this appears to have been a pretty repellent thing. I have never seen the book, let alone read it, but I have read a summary of its plot, and seen many quotes, and there seems to be general consensus that this is a pretty repulsive piece of misogyny, including sexual violence towards women.

What I do know is that Fleisher bought advertising space to promote his book, in which he received permission to feature several of the comics characters he had written at that point. These included Jonah Hex, acting scared by its contents, and Spider-Woman, relishing how super-sexy it made her feel, and that Fleisher certainly knew how to turn a woman on. By forcing her to perform a blow job and them setting her alight? Kinky.

And like Charles Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, Fleisher seemed to have something of a bondage fetish, allegedly constantly trying to introduce bound women into his stories, and having been complained about by more than one Editor, technically responsible for the content of the comic, for this tendency.

This was Michael Fleisher’s career, up to that point in 1983 when Gary Goth interviewed Harlan Ellison for The Comics Journal 53. This was a free-ranging talk, with Ellison offering unbridled opinion about multiple subjects. When it came to Fleisher, Ellison was enthusiastic about his work, saying that “there’s a genuinely twisted imagination at work” and describing it as “Bugfuck”. You might not agree with the actual wording, but it’s clear from context that Ellison is praising Fleisher, even to the extent to comparing him with H P Lovecraft.

Unfortunately, Fleisher did not see it that way. His immediate response was to demand an apology and retraction from TCJ. This would have been considered, but Fleisher went so far as to writ his own multi-page apology and retraction, including demands for banner front page headlines, in terms deliberately intended to be as humiliating as possible to the Journal. No magazine would have conceded that, and the editors determined to investigate the aggrandising claims Fleisher was making, but were halted when he issued proceedings against _TCJ_ and Ellison.

The Journal based their defence on their First Amendment rights.

The case ran for years, and polarised much of the comics industry, based mostly on individuals’ reactions to the abrasive Journal and its provocative stance. Journal publishers, Fantagraphics, published several fundraiser comics, featuring material donated by writers and artists, to pay legal bills, and at one time were accused by one of their enemies of taking everyone for a ride and that they were spending the money on cars etc.

Some less publicised efforts were made to raise money for Fleisher, but his main supporter in the action appeared to be Marvel Editor-in-Chief, who gave up prodigious amounts of time to give evidence in Court about the damage the interview had done to Fleisher’s reputation in the market, and thus his income (which increased during the time it took to get the case to Court and was accordingly argued to have risen less than it would have without the defamation).

Eventually, the case went to Court with hearings lasting for weeks, after which the jury took ninety minutes to find for the Journal and Ellison. The word went around at the time that a juror had been overheard saying that they none of them believed a word of Shooter’s testimony.

The verdict came in just in time for a very short note to appear in TCJ issue 114. Gary Groth’s victory speech to the fan press was a reading of the First Amendment. But TCJ 115 went to town, with a cover dominated by Jim Shooter giving testimony and practically the whole issue given over to the course of the case and Trial transcripts. Fleisher’s ‘demanded’ apology was printed, as was the aborted refutation of his claims therein. Fleisher’s testimony didn’t arrive but Shooter’s was there in full, and it was not pretty reading, especially for those writers and artists at Marvel who suddenly found themselves officially reduced to puppets of the editor…

Shooter was growing increasingly unpopular for his dictatorial ways around Marvel, and the hostility around what was seen by many as an attempt to crush a magazine that constantly railed against him and Marvel was at one time cited as contributing to Shooter’s sacking as Editor-in-Chief not so many moons later.

It did for Fleisher’s career as a comic book writer. After this debacle, he disappeared from the industry, cut all ties with his former colleagues, and was believed to have been living in Ontario when word was passed that he’d died.

I doubt it would have made much of a splash anyway, but today it’s not even ephemera.

And there doesn’t seem to be much reaction in comics circles Stateside either. Fleisher actually died as far back as February 2, aged 75. He was a good writer, technically, but from all I read of his work, his imagination took him into dark and dubious areas that I personally would not want to navigate. His biggest, and self-induced problem was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that Harlan Ellison was praising him for that, and he started a lawsuit that blew up spectacularly in his face. Conspiracy theorists even contended that Fleisher was under the influence of Jim Shooter, who saw him as a means to crush The Comics Journal: certainly, that self-composed apology is more of an attempt at humiliation than apology and reparation.

Whether there’s any truth in that, I have no idea. Jim Shooter’s attempt to use Fleisher’s lawsuit for exactly that purpose sure blew up in his face.

Whatever the truths, Fleisher has gone into the dark. The legacy he leaves is minimal and corrupted. Even if the news had not coincided with Stephen Hawking, his passing would probably only been of interest to a few of us, who remember the saga. Not a legacy worth leaving.

If you can’t go wildly OTT at a time like this, when can you?


Stephen Hawking: R.I.P.

A massive loss.

I once bought, read and finished A Brief History of Time. I followed it reasonably well, but don’t pretend to have understood it.

And I’ve seen him on The Big Bang Theory, ably sending himself up: “Another fainter.”

The jokes are already proliferating, and they celebrate him and his genius. I wish I could come up with one to respect him, but all I can do is honour his passing.