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, Jim Shooter, 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?

 

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1978


Justice League of America 159, “Crisis From Yesterday!”/Justice League of America 160, “Crisis From Tomorrow!” Written by Gerry Conway, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.


For their annual meeting this year, the Justice League and the Justice Society attend a private meal at Gotham City’s exclusive “22” Club. For once, the heroes can simply socialise. Earth-1’s Batman tries to come to terms with meeting the Huntress, his counterpart’s daughter. The Star-Spangled Kid hates being called Sylvester. Those politically and socially polar opposites, Green Arrow and Hawkman, having got pissed together one night, are now bosom buddies. All is well, until the wall of the restaurant is blown in.
We cut to a timeless dimension bordering on 3786AD. The League’s old foe, the Lord of Time, is worried. The infallible computer he has built confirms that five historical figures have been sent to July 15, 1978. The Lord of Time, to ensure Earth’s survival, needs these figures to utterly defeat the League and Society.
This is because the computer, which he built to stop Time whilst he looted everywhen, has worked too well. It will stop Time, but Time cannot then be restarted. And he has built it too well for it to be destroyed.
Back on July 15, 1978, the attackers of the Club stand revealed. They are all characters from long ago DC adventure series set in the past: in chronological order, Jon, the Viking Prince, The Black Pirate, plunderer of Spain’s tyranny, Miss Liberty, heroine of the Revolutionary War, scarred bounty hunter, Jonah Hex, and Hans von Hammer, World War 1 fighter pilot for Germany. All have been enhanced with superpowers, and a second volley from von Hammer’s triplane brings the building down on the heroes.
Mystified as to how they have got there, how they can understand each other, and why they have attacked these strangers, the historical heroes retreat, at Miss Liberty’s suggestion, to a place where they can think.
After they leave, the heroes start to dig themselves out of the rubble. A handful of heroes are functioning – Leaguers Superman, the Flash, Hawkman and Elongated Man, JSAers Wonder Woman, Dr. Mid-nite, the Huntress and Star-Spangled Kid. The rest are comatose, in a state of shock, feverish. They are rushed to hospital by the survivors, who then seek out their attackers driven by an impassioned Hawkman, whose wife, Hawkgirl, is amongst those in a coma.
Superman’s X-ray vision detects a trail of chronal energy that leads the heroes to their assailants’ temporary base at Valley Forge. But, despite the massive imbalance in powers, they are easily, and comprehensively beaten by the historical quintet.
In an epilogue, the Lord of Time extracts his pawns and brings them to his Palace. They have done what he required: completely beaten the heroes. But the beaten come back stronger than ever. The League and Society awaken with renewed determination. Just as he planned.
End of Part 1.


Once again, the historical heroes have left a Chronal Energy trail that Superman can read. The superheroes follow it into the Lord of Time’s future side-dimension to resume the battle.
Meanwhile, the enraged historics mount an attack on the Palace itself, but the Computer responds by drawing in menaces from all over Time, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and mutated reptilian apes, which overcome this rebellion. They are sent back to their own times.
Back on Earth, fresh from Monitor Duty, Aquaman arrives at Gotham Hospital, concerned for the fallen. He recaps the Earth-1 & -2 set-up for new readers, gets inappropriately excited on hearing that there were survivors who have gone into the future and only then arranges to bring the League’s advanced medical diagnostic equipment down to deal with the strange radiation permeating everybody’s body.
The League and Society pursuers are nearing the Lord of Time’s Palace. The Elongated Man feels out of place in comparison to everyone else: they all have awesome powers and he can only stretch his body: what is he doing there?
The heroes run into the first of a series of barriers created by the Computer. They break through each in turn, but at the cost of losing another hero to each obstacle. Four get into the Palace itself, but The Huntress, the Star-Spangled Kid and Dr Mid-nite are taken out by a multi-armed robot, leaving only the Elongated Man to complete the mission. And, despite his doubts, he does so, blowing up the Computer by short-circuiting it with his own body. With seconds only to spare, Time is saved.
Back on Earth, the heroes are all restored by the simple expedient of using Green Lantern’s power ring to clear out the radiation from their bodies: all except Elongated Man, and he’s ok because his rubbery bones and organs kept him from being badly hurt in the explosion. He’s back to being boastful to his wife.
* * * * *
Despite what I’m going to say below, this is a distinct improvement on the last three years of the traditional JLA/JSA teamup. After Engelhart brought his run to a thunderous conclusion with Justice League of America 150, he was replaced by Gerry Conway who, with a few exceptions, would remain writer on the series until it was cancelled and rebooted in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Whatever I may think of Conway as a writer, and that needs to take into account my loathing of what he was to do in the following  year’s team-up, he brought a much needed sense of security and consistency to the Justice League, which was after all supposed to be one of DC’s flagship titles.
No mention of 1978 will be wholly accurate if it does not take into account the DC Explosion/Implosion, which seriously threatened the future of the company and which caused many very knowledgeable and intelligent people to predict that within five years, there would not be a comic book industry.
The Explosion was the brainchild of new DC Publisher, Jeanette Kahn, who had replaced the dismissed Carmine Infantino in 1977. Kahn, successful in publishing magazines for young people, was a complete Industry outsider, an unusual but ultimately successful choice. Looking at comics’ recent history of price increases, reduced content, reduced printing quality and DC’s by now traditional position as second to Marvel, Kahn’s solution was to get ahead of the price curve and offer more to the reader. Prices would jump to 50c, but story content would leap from 17 to 25 pages, with editors free to choose whether to extend the titular character’s stories, or re-introduce back-ups, to give different, unused or new characters a chance.
In one way, it was just another version of DC’s continually unsuccessful attempts to sell thicker comics for more, but whereas other such moves had smacked of a certain desperation, the Explosion was based on more positive attitudes, The line would be expanded, new creators taken on, experimentation encouraged, new ground seized. The publicity created enormous expectations.
Then, in the very month of the Explosion beginning, Warner Brothers looked at DC’s figures, panicked, and pulled the plug. Thirty-one titles, including five new series scheduled to start the following month, were cancelled in one go. The 44 page 50c 25 pages of content comic was cancelled and the line reverted to 32 pages with 17 of content, now for 40c. Credibility and confidence vanished like a mirage.
Ironically, Justice League of America was one of the few comics to have been losing pages in the Explosion. It had maintained its Giant size until issue 157, before dropping to the new format. As one of the titles surviving the Implosion, and with the issues already written and drawn, it was allowed to remain at Explosion size for three months, enabling this story to go out unchanged.
The following issue, it too dropped back to 17 pages for 40c.
The Justice Society of America was not so blessed. All-Star‘s first issue (#74) in the new size was the last of its revival, as the title was amongst those cancelled. The team did not vanish: its series was transferred into the new 100-page Dollar format in the struggling Adventure Comics and the already-prepared All-Star 75 was split over two issues of that.
So this team-up took place against a background of tremendous uncertainty. It would also be the last team-up to be edited by Julius Schwartz, who was reducing his workload and concentrating upon his work on the Superman titles. He had been the Justice League’s only editor in the nearly twenty years since their creation. At least he got to leave this tradition on a relative high.
Conway’s story reflected his interest in time-travel stories and his enthusiasm for having the JLA/JSA meet a group of DC’s historical characters. Jonah Hex, the extremely dark-edged bounty hunter was still in publication at the time, but the other four were vanished figures, characters from the Fifties and early-Sixties who had been pushed into obscurity by the Silver Age of superheroes.
Together, they fulfilled the ‘need’ for a third force without being as much of a contrivance as the Fawcett heroes had been.
To bring them into the story, Conway chose the early-League villain, the Lord of Time. The underlying idea is ingenious: the villain has set in motion a destructive scheme that he regrets but cannot stop: unknown to them, the heroes are his means of preventing the self-created disaster.
That much said though, there are an awful number of flaws to what is basically a decent story. Conway handles his five historic heroes well, especially in the scene where they compare notes about how they have come together and how they have been controlled – von Hammer, the ‘Enemy Ace’, is handled particularly well.
But the underlying issue Conway has to justify is how this quintet of ordinary people can overcome so many superheroes with so many diverse powers. All he can think of is some nebulous, unexplained energy that they disperse via their respective guns or swords or, in the Viking Prince’s case by, er, nothing.
It’s indicative of a poverty of imagination that has afflicted the superhero industry ever since the fans took over the writing. Nobody seems capable of thinking up powers that don’t just fire energy blasts all over the place, and this in Conway’s solution to ‘equalising’ the non-existent balance between the two sides.
The Lord of Time’s premise is that he needs to inflict the superheroes’ first ever defeat in order for them to come back stronger, strong enough to defeat his super-Computer. It’s another new angle, yet, assuming it is a viable notion at all, it depends entirely on its execution. The JLA/JSA must be beaten, and in a way that is different from any of those other times when they have been defeated – by the Crime Syndicate in 1964, the Black Spheres in 1967 and T.O.Morrow in 1968, just to pick out three off the top of my head.
Conway, via the Lord of Time, categorises these as ‘setbacks’, yet even within part 1, the ‘defeated’ heroes get up ready to fight again in a manner no different to such previous occasions.
As for the historics, once they have served their purpose, they are an unwanted and unnecessary presence in the story. Surely the Lord of Time would restore them to their rightful place in history, forgetful of their adventure? It is, after all, what he does after their rebellion against him in nearly 3786AD, a perfunctory ending for them. It reads like sloppiness on Conway’s part, as it’s patently obvious that this is the device to enable the JLA/JSA to track down the super-Computer.
However, given that the Lord of Time has done all this to get the heroes in fighting shape, I am forced to concede that this may actually be a deliberate manoeuvre: up to that point, the heroes have no idea who’s behind all this.
The historics’ last stand suffices to bulk out the second part, as does the embarrassing interlude in the hospital with Aquaman. This latter was, of course, chosen to host yet another of the increasingly tedious and long-winded explanations for the audience about the League and the Society, Earth-1 and Earth-2, etc., but it’s turned into something of a pantomime by the King of Atlantis, dealing out hugs to the female Doctor as soon as she mentions that the heroes not propped up in this surprisingly spacious ward aren’t dead (married man cops feel) and only then offering the use of the League’s advanced diagnostic equipment to, you know, sort of, help.
It’s supposed to be to determine why certain heroes were affected by this mysterious radiation, and others weren’t, but don’t worry, Conway has forgotten that part of the story by the end. As, incidentally, is the fact that the Lord of Time’s computer has sent the historics home on page 7, only for the Aquaman-led cavalry to mentioned that they sent the warriors back on page 25. That is sloppy, and something Schwartz should have caught.
But these diversions are only that: they’re present only to keep the issue from being the straightforward war of attrition as the heroes advance, sacrificing themselves one at a time with almost manic determination, to allow their fellows to proceed, until the last one left is the one least-suited for the task.
We know the Elongated Man is least-suited to defeat a super-Computer with incredible self-defence capability, because Ralph Dibny’s been telling us so from the start, thus telegraphing that he will be the only survivor left. Which is where Conway’s potentially interesting story hits its last hurdle. This complicated, some might say convoluted plot has been devised because the Computer is so strong, not even the full Justice League and Society, in their collective might can destroy it.
But an india-rubber man can stick his fingers in the futuristic equivalent of what looks like a plug-socket and, by short-circuiting it, cause it to blow up. Why didn’t the Lord of Time just pull out the plug, if it was so bloody easy?
Nice idea, inadequately executed (in some respects painfully so). Yet I still rate this as an improvement over the past three years? Perhaps that gives you an idea of how bad I think the last three stories have been. This effort is at least clear and logical and, whilst failing at its central premise due to lack of thought, doesn’t lose itself in ineffectually established, unnecessary and confusing circles.
Conway does bring in a greater underlying emotion than most previous adventures have done. We never really have seen the League and Society socialising, or simply responding as friends, and it’s a treat to do so. I do have certain reservations in this area: Batman’s musings about the Huntress, who is attending her first team-up, are wistful, but should perhaps not have been superimposed upon Helena Wayne clearly posing her curvaceous body, which lends a distinctively perverse undercurrent.
And I am far from impressed by Conway’s sudden decision, after years of hostility between the socially liberal Oliver Queen and the uptight, authoritarian Carter Hall, to turn them into bosom buddies, all polarities overlooked or forgiven, on the strength of one night going out (offstage) and getting tanked up. It doesn’t work, and what was so wrong with their entirely natural antipathy for each other’s views that Conway felt he had to destroy it?
I’m also very underwhelmed by the needlessly artificial way Conway tries to inject emotion into the aftermath of the historics’ attack that downs so many heroes. It’s not that there is anything at all artificial at Hawkman’s grief over Hawkgirl being injured, far from it. I’m just not convinced by the weight put on this incident, as if without it neither we nor any of the other survivors will understand that what has happened is a Very Bad Thing (it made Hawkman cry both under and through his hawk-helm, it must be serious).
At the time of this story, I read only the first part, the Implosion having buggered up the perennially dodgy distribution to British newsstands and the early comics shops. I was living in Nottingham at this time, when a visit to Ben’s Comics, between the cricket ground and Forest’s ground, was a long walk, affordable only once a month, and best completed by 12.30pm if Forest – the League Champions – were at home.
Finally, this is another story requiring only the most minor of tweaks to make eminently feasible in the post-Crisis Universe. Unfortunately so was the next.