It’s been announced today that Stanley Martin Lieber, known to anyone interested in comics as Stan Lee has died, aged 95. Lee’s career has been one of tremendous popularity, and no little controversy over where the credit for seminal stories created with the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko truly lies, but this is not the time or place for arguments. The very least that can be said for Lee is that he created a writing style that was individual and influential, and perfect for the Marvel Revolution of the Sixties, and for that alone he deserves his place in history.
Comics writers and artists tend to live a long time, so 95 comes as no surprise. And Lee was the last of them, the giants. The world is much less colourful for his passing.
This won’t be enough. It can’t possibly be adequate because I don’t know enough, I wasn’t there at any of the right times, and because I don’t have enough of the right temperament. But today is an anniversary, and because of who it is it demands recognition, even from those of us who can’t do the job justice.
Today is a birthday, the birthday of someone no longer with us, a man born Jacob Kurtzberg who achieved fame under an anglicised pen name which he later took officially as his own. He was Jack Kirby, and they called him the King, and rarely if ever has a nickname been more fully justified.
Jack Kirby was a comic books artist. Many would call him THE comic books artist, and if you restrict that definition to the superhero field that has dominated the form, for good or ill, for so long, you’d hardly find anyone to argue. In terms of dynamism, energy, imagination, inspiration, the King was unequalled. Whilst nt discounting Stan Lee, there are viable arguments that Jack Kirby was responsible for creating Marvel as it is. His characters dominate Marvel, and the number of creations that sprang from them will probably never be countable.
But whatever you can say about Kirby’s approach to art, and many far better qualified than I to analyse it have worshipped at its feet and drawn untold inspiration, there is one aspect in which Jack Kirby can never be equalled. The man was a Creation Machine. He created more and more varied characters than anyone else, without stopping, almost without thinking. They just poured out of him, until the end of his life.
Kirby just was a marvel. He would have been 101 today. He deserved to be 101, to be physically immortal and not ‘merely’ creatively immortal. And everyonee who met him to this day misses him like crazy.
Without wishing to slight the contributions of those others who were there in thee beginning, it’s inarguable that the success of Marvel Comics, and everything that has followed on from the extraordinary period of creativity, rests on the work of three men. You may dispute the order of importance on another day when such things can once again be debated, but these men were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. ‘King’ Kirby died long ago, in 1994, and now Steve Ditko has been found dead, in his apartment, aged 90. Only Stan Lee remains of that essential trio.
Ditko, who was famously private, indeed reclusive, was far less productive than Kirby, but was every bit his equal. It was Ditko who, when Lee was dissatisfied with Kirby’s first designs, took over the project, bringing to it his unique perspective, his odd, almost angular art and the sense of brooding and misery that Kirby, the boundlessly positive and elemental force could not provide. Stan Lee supplied the words, but it was Ditko who showed us Peter Parker, and turned him into the Amazing Spider-Man.
If that was not enough, and for the average creative person it would be a crowning glory, Ditko also created Marvel’s master of magic, Dr Strange, and the whole otherwordly realm of the fantastic that the Doctor occupied.
For all that the decades and countless contributors have added to the story, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange remain what Steve Ditko created them to be.
Many looked at Doctor Strange in the Sixties and concluded that Steve Ditko was one cool cat, and obviously familiar with the effects of such things as Lysergic Acid. But Ditko was the epitome of a conservative gentleman, short-haired, short-sleeved, personally abstemious. Some imaginations don’t need chemical stimulation and Ditko’s was as weird as they came, naturally.
In that, however, lay the seeds of the breach with Marvel. Ditko was a man of firm thought and principles, deeply committed to Objectivism, the philosophy spawned by Ayn Rand. The relationship with Stan Lee rapidly became untenable. Ditko started to plot and draw Spider-Man on his own. When he was due to deliver the completed pages to Marvel, Lee would take care not to be seen. It would be the first he knew of this month’s issue, and now he would add the words.
Then, one day, Ditko left Marvel. Delivered his latest Spider-Man, announced he wouldn’t be doing any more, left. He would return, much later, do other series for Marvel, create the cult favourite, Squirrel Girl, but never again enjoy the prominence and influence he had in those half-dozen years. There were stints at other companies, other creations. For Charlton comics (who may have paid the lowest rates but who didn’t interfere with his work to any appreciable extent) he created Captain Atom, the new Blue Beetle and another cult favourite, The Question, all of whom now belong to DC, for whom he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove.
All of these would distinguish the record of a lesser man, though they were none of them Spidey or Doc Strange.
Much of Ditko’s work, and he remained prolific throughout his life, ended up self-published. He remained a master cartoonist, but devoted his time to things that expressed his opinions and his Objectivism, a philosophy that remains attractive only to a minority. It limited him, but it was Ditko is his most pure and refine, and at the end of the day it was the artist being true to himself at all costs.
Steve Ditko stayed away from fame and public exposure. He would not allow himself to be interviewed or even photographed. He was ‘featured’ in a Jonathan Ross documentary on comics for the BBC, but that meant that he agreed to meet Ross, alone, without cameras or recording equipment, and that Ross agree not to repeat anything Ditko said! True to his word, Ross disappeared into a Manhattan building, reappeared visibly thrilled, and gave nothing away.
And now there is only one, only the writer/editor/figure of some controversy, Stan Lee. But Marvel, and everything else, all across the field of comics, is a legacy with three pillars, and Steve Ditko will live in memory forever for being one of those pillars.
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.
I may not read comics much, these days, but I keep up with the news, and a couple of nights ago, I learned that the comic book writer Len Wein had died, aged 69, of complications following surgery.
Wein had been a mainstay of the mainstream comic book industry, as writer, editor and then again writer, for nearly fifty years. A lifelong friend of fellow writer and editor Marv Wolfman, the pair were among that first serious wave of fans-turned-writers/artists who began to transform the industry at the start of the Seventies, and what’s more, the pair did it at crusty old DC, where, in 1972, Len Wein co-created the first of two iconic characters, Swamp Thing.
I’ve written about the Swamp Thing at length elsewhere, and Wein’s original version of Swampy, as a man who lost his humanity to become a monster who was yet more human than those who reacted to him, was a powerful vision, and one that Wein returned to in the last decade, writing his character again after a forty year break.
In the meantime, Wein’s original version was subsumed with Alan Moore’s revised vision, in which the Swamp Thing was transformed from a man turned into a plant to a plant that erroneously thought itself to have been a man, paving the way for a further transformation into an avatar of nature itself. Though I’d loved and collected the original series, I was and am still even more impressed with Moore’s version. But whilst Moore’s career on Swamp Thing and at DC generally is indelibly associated with editor Karen Berger, it was not she who offered the job of writing Swampy to Moore, but the comic’s previous editor, Len Wein, who had the creative generosity to allow his own creation to be torn up like that.
Wein’s other, and substantially more famous creation, came at Marvel, where he worked for most of the Seventies, and was for a time it’s Editor-in-Chief. This was an offhand creation, brought into The Incredible Hulk, just because a Canadian superhero was wanted. He was just a no-mark one-off, until Wein was asked to revive the long moribund X-Men as an international team, and Wein brought in his Canadian creation: Wolverine.
So: Wolverine and the new X-Men, on top of Swamp Thing. If Wein didn’t go on to create anyone else of that magnitude, and if each of these achieved their greatest successes under other hands, the fact remains that without Len Wein there would have been no Swamp Thing, no Wolverine, no massively successful X-Men franchise, and maybe even no career for Chris Claremont, or success outside Britain for Alan Moore.
By the end of the Seventies, Wein was back at DC, where he now worked rather as an editor than a writer. Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s The New Teen Titans is rightly credited with restoring the fortunes, credibility and morale of DC Comics after the disastrous Implosion of 1978: Wein was it’s editor. Swamp Thing‘s return after seven years in limbo was under Wein’s purview, and it was his lengthy discussions with Wolfman over DC’s complex and convoluted Multiversal history that led eventually to Wein editing another Wolfman/Perez project, Crisis on Infinite Earths.
He was also the editor who first started another landmark Alan Moore series, Watchmen.
I’m making Wein’s career highlights sound very much a thing of the past, but though he continued to work regularly, in comics and television, after leaving DC in the early Nineties, these are the accomplishments for which I, and fans of my generation, will recall. I will also remember Wein for making the Phantom Stranger one of my favourite ever characters, and for writing him, in issues 14 – 26, as far back as 1973-5, better than anyone else before or since.
There are aspects of Wein’s writing that, celebrated at the time, have come to be less respected as time went on. The original ten-page Swamp Thing story, co-created with the late Berni Wrightson, and as perfect a gem of compressed writing and emotion as I have ever read, is nevertheless ill-worn in its florid, indeed purple prose, which was so characteristic of Wein’s early style.
Nevertheless, he was a major figure, and his career was worthy of respect throughout.
But if nothing else, I owe Len Wein for a single comic. As I’ve related before, I grew out of comics in 1970, nearing my fifteenth birthday. Four years later, waiting to buy a post-haircut Mars Bar in a newsagents, I glanced at a rack of American comics and, out of mild curiosity, had a riffle. I ended up buying Justice League of America 107, which changed my life. I cannot begin to count what I’ve spent on comics in the forty-three years plus since, how many thousands have passed through my hands, the enjoyment, fascination, imagination I’ve experienced.
Len Wein wrote that comic. He did that for me. About a decade later, I met him for the only time, at a Convention in Britain. I got him to sign Justice League of America 107, told him it was responsible for getting me back into comics, and he shied away, as if I was going to ask him to pay back all the money he’d been responsible for me shelling out.
I need to thank him again today. Thank you, Len Wein. You may have acted as if you owed me lots, but it is I who owe you, even up to all the words on this blog. You started something that became unstoppable, and I thank you. We thank you. Give our regards to the Phantom Stranger as he leads you to where the good ones go.
From the moment the first reports leaking from filming got anywhere that I could read them, there’s been a good vibe about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, the introduction of Magic in Phase 3, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first – but definitely not last – outing as Doctor Stephen Strange.
And the good vibes kept mounting, up to the reviews of recent days, which have been universally favourable, except, that is, for the one coming from a comics-oriented site, which did not like it, and which slated Cumberbatch as the worst possible choice for the good Doctor.
Which did concern me a little, given that it was the only one from the comic book insider’s perception and you know that, preference for DC or not, that’s my standpoint. Was it only going to go down well with the audience that didn’t know what it was talking about? I am old enough to have encountered Doctor Strange when all was fresh and new, and very very Steve Ditko.
Rest assured however that, after this afternoon’s visit to Grand Central, Stockport, you will indeed enjoy this latest expansion of the MCU, that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed very fitting as Stephen Strange, arrogant neurosurgeon and potential Sorceror Supreme, and if you are old enough, you too will find yourself playing air guitar in your seat as the introduction to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ booms onto the soundtrack.
Yes, psychedelic is the way.
Whilst it isn’t free from some tampering with the original story, Doctor Strange is a pretty comprehensive and pretty faithful effort. We have the classic story, updated into the Twenty-First Century, of Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon and all-round selfish arsehole, losing the ability to operate after damaging his hands in a car crash, unable to repair the damage by western, scientific medicine and heading east for a miracle cure that he doesn’t believe in but which has been proven effective.
We have Katmandu, and The Ancient One – controversially not the aged Tibetan of the series but instead Tilda Swinton with a shaved head, who gets referred to once, fleetingly, as a Celt and that’s it – and Wong, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu and Mordo. In one form or another, we get practically everything bar the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, and not the least mention (that I could hear) of Hoggoth, let alone its Hoary Hordes.
You would expect Mordo to be the bad guy, but not so. Instead, the film has called up the obscure sorceror and minion of Baron Mordo, Kaecilius, playing a very Mordo-esque role as chief antagonist under the aegis of Dormammu, whilst the film’s Mordo, a Master not a Baron, is a trusted aide to The Ancient One. On the other hand, he did turn his back in disgust with everybody at the end, for breaking the Laws of Nature to ensure Earth wasn’t subsumed into the Dark Dimension under Dormammu’s rule for ever. Apparently, it’s not enough to save the world, you’ve got to do it in a regulation manner, so expect Mordo to be up for it as a Baddie in Doctor Strange 2.
(Which is planned,Cumberbatch having signed up for at least one more, but has no schedule, which is good because, despite being keen on seeing another film like this, I am even more keen on seeing Sherlock series 4).
These departures from the original were part of the process of de-racial-stereotyping the Doctor Strange set-up, and they were carefully and well-handled throughout. To be honest, what gave me more problems was Cumberbatch’s accent as Doctor Strange. I am no expert on English actors doing American accents but, no matter how accurate he may have been, it will take longer than this film lasted before I look at Benedict Cumberbatch and not expect to hear Sherlock Holmes.
I have to say that, for once, the CGI was one of the best things about this movie. I don’t usually go in for giving the SFX that much credit, and I subscribe to the opinion that any film that lets its CGI play a bigger part than its actors is doing the wrong job, but the opening scene, where The as-yet-unidentified Ancient One pursues Kercilius and his henches to London and starts rolling up the buildings, turning gravity on its side and interlocking old-fashioned and ornate frontages into themselves had my eyes popping out, but when it came to New York, later in the film, London got off easily.
I’m sorry not to be so energetic and articulate as I usually am at such things, not being at my best just now, but trust me on this one, Doctor Strange is well worth your time. Choose the 3D option, seriously, and if the cinema don’t do 3D screens, go to one that does.
And play yourself some Pink Floyd in advance. The early stuff, the Syd Barratt stuff. Get yourself in the mood. Groovy baby.
If you were to ask me the page content of the average, 2016, 32 page comic book (or ‘floppy’ as they are commonly called now), I would have no idea. Off the top of my head, I would guess twenty. That is, twenty pages of art and story, i.e., content, out of a thirty-two page package.
That’s not a good percentage but, believe me, it’s not the worst it’s ever been.
When it was first invented, in the Thirties, the American comic book consisted of 64 pages for a dime. Due to War-time paper restrictions, that package was successively reduced to (briefly) 56 pages, then 48 pages, before being reduced even further, in the Fifties, to its present format of 32 pages. All still for that original 10c.
When I first discovered American comics, in the early Sixties, comic books were taking that first, tentative steps into increasing their prices, gouging their customers for an extra 2 cents. At that point, the average DC comic consisted of approximately 24 pages of story and art, a full 75% of the package.
It took nearly the whole decade before the next increase was put through, this time to 15c, but the Oil-Inflation Seventies saw increase after increase, at intervals of eighteen months to two years. In the meantime, the companies desperately attempted to head off, or at least delay such increases, but cutting costs. Artists no longer drew originals on boards two-up, but were restricted to 1.5 up (i.e., twice, or one and a half times the size of the actual printed art).
Paper quality was cut, to cheaper, more porous stock on which lines and colours soaked in and ran. Steel printing plates gave way to cheaper and easier to engrave plastic printing plates, which blurred and distorted lines long before the print run was completed. And page counts were cut. Fewer pages, lower payments to writers and artists paid by the number of pages completed and bought.
DC had tried to get out in front of the curve in 1971, jumping their comics directly from 15c to 25c whilst increasing the size of the package, to 40 pages, the extra pages entirely devoted to content, in the form of reprints: those in Jack Kirby’s ‘Fourth World’ books were prime Golden Age Kirby and Simon material.
This plan was undercut by one of Martin Goodman’s last, shark-like tricks at Marvel. The plan was for everybody to increase the package at the same time, which Goodman did, but only for one month, cutting back immediately to 32 pages at 20c, far faster than DC, with its more sclerotic management structure, to react. DC struggled back to 32 pages at 20c, no reprints, but the content went down to 20 pages, then eighteen and finally, by mid-decade, seventeen.
There was another attempt on DC’s part to change the deteriorating status quo. In 1974, they went off on another bigger package run.
This was the year of the 50c comic, which was just coming in as I rediscovered American comics and started buying them again. Basically, it was a rerun of the 25c experiment writ large: for 50c, the reader got a squarebound, 100 page package, containing the standard 20 pages of new art, plus a massive wodge of reprints, varying as to the title in question. The enhanced Justice League of America was the first place in which I was able to read Golden Age Justice Society reprints.
It lasted a year, during which the price increased to 60c, before the experiment was carried off, and it was all back to the bog-standard floppy at eighteen pages. As an experiment, I enjoyed it, though it was very dependant on the choice of reprints.
The best of that era was, undoubtedly, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, the new back-up in Detective. It lasted seven issues, six of them as a back-up strip to the Caped Crusader, and if it hadn’t been for the Fifty Cent Comic, I’d have never noticed it.
Detective Comics was in another sales trough in 1973. Julius Schwarz, the ‘Now Look’ Batman and the TV series had saved Bruce Wayne from cancellation in 1964, but the bubble had burst and, in an effort to drum up sales with a new approach, Archie Goodwin was brought in as editor (and writer) of Detective, which was down to a bi-monthly schedule.
Upfront, Goodwin went for unusual offbeat stories, by artists not normally associated with Batman, but for a back-up, he wanted a complete contrast: a brightly costumed, globe-trotting hero with a strong martial flavour. With the then-newcomer Simonson, Goodwin devised Manhunter as a seven page, very taut back-up, tacking the character onto the back of the Forties hero of the same name.
It was a massive creative success, as witness the number of times it has been reprinted since. In addition to buying the original run, I have had no less than three different collections. It won industry plaudits by the ton, and it stands up beautifully four decades on, in a way that the vast majority of Seventies comics just don’t.
It didn’t do anything for Detective‘s sales, however. A year on, and unhappy with management at DC, Goodwin relinquished the editorship and writing, and moved on to Marvel. Julius Schwartz, resuming as editor, had no interest in continuing Manhunter, and Goodwin was able to get agreement for his final issue to be a 20 page crossover with Batman, providing a definitive end to Paul ‘Manhunter’ Kirk’s story. It was that ending, so rare and precious, that made Manhunter the creative success it was.
Had I not seen, and been intrigued by the first Detective fifty center, I would probably never have seen the series. Goodwin’s first issue, with the debut Manhunter back-up, was the final 32 page floppy, and I was lucky to scrabble round and fnd a still-available copy, which was nearly as difficult to ensure as it had been in the Sixties.
No doubt I would have heard about it later, maybe bought one of the reprints at some point, but I have always found a deeper attachment to those series I have had to accumulate, in monthly instalments, the story-front creeping along, offering endless speculation about what might follow. Reading the whole thing at once, cover to cover, no delay at any of the cliffhangers, is never quite as enthralling.
So the year was up, the Fifty/Sixty Centers vanished and DC went back to floppies.
Seventeen pages was the nadir though. once upon a time, it might have almost been a luxury: throughout the Fifties, and well into the Sixties, most DC comics offered two stories per issue, both of around twelve pages in length. Its writers were veterans, long used to the professional demands of telling a clear, concise story, with a beginning, middle and end, in twelve pages or thereabouts, so seventeen pages ought to have been easily manageable.
But this was not the Sixties any more, and that generation of writers were no longer writing comics. Their replacements had been brought up, drawn in to the industry, by Marvel Comics, who concentrated on book-length stories to a greater extent, and on ongoing stories, in which the three unities were rarely within the same covers. The writers of the Seventies wanted to write comics like that. They had never had the training to produce short stories. They neither wanted to nor were capable of writing satisfying stories in only seventeen pages.
One writer was comfortable with the form, however, Denny O’Neil, who wrote perhaps my favourite page of comics from the Seventies.
It was a bog-standard Batman adventure of the era, drawn by Ernie Chan, and the villain was the Riddler. Batman frustrated him a couple of times, so the Riddler headed back to his new secret HQ, at Gotham Zoo. The page in question covered a single scene.
The Riddler approaches the Zoo entrance concealed by trenchcoat and hat pulled down. He’s frustrated, planning on fleeing, his body language is hunched, withdrawn, downbeat. In short, he is not a happy bunny. However, he is waylaid, by a boy aged about eight, trying to catch his attention. The Riddler is in no mood for such things and tells the kid to beat it, cram, but he blurts out that all he wants to do is tell him a Riddle.
Mr Nigma transforms in an instant. he’s down on his kness, level with the kid’s face, holding his shoulders and insisting, “Yes, please do! Please do!” “Do you want me to tell you the story of the bed?” The kid asks. “go on, go on,” the Riddler says, barely able to contain himself. “I can’t,” the kid says, with the kind of perfect cheesy grin of a little boy who’s come up with something funny all by himself and just has to share it, “It hasn’t been made up yet!”
The final panel shows the kid approaching his parents. “Dad, look what the nice man gave me,” he says. “A $100 bill?” the dad gasps. In the background, The Riddler is walking through the Zoo gates, but his body language is transformed. He’s striding out, head up and back, almost strutting.
It’s a magical page. In structural terms, it’s completely redundant and irrelevant. The story could be told with the other sixteen pages without the smallest of changes, and this scene would not be missed, nor any gap felt. As such, with only seventeen pages available, it could be described as poor writing.
And yet it’s brilliant, because it’s the only page of the script on which anybody does something human, that is not purely and simply a function of the plot. And this was from a very early point, at which I had not even begun to get bored with superhero dynamics and fights. Which is why I can remember each panel of that page, whilst I have no recollection of anything from any of the other sixteen pages.
It wasn’t tenable, however. Seventeen crappy pages with crappy stories and crappy art and the price going up five or ten cents a year, year-on-year. So DC shifted out Carmine Infantino as Publisher and brought in an outsider, Jeanette Kahn, a novice in comics but a children’s magazine publishing success.
Who, once she had settled herself into the Publisher’s chair, came up with a brilliant idea to move forward and secure comics’ future.
Bigger comics. With more pages.
It was known as the DC Explosion. It was planned as a massive uplift to the DC line, introducing new characters and new titles, but the heart of it was that, in order to avoid the awkward jump from 35c to 40c, DC’s comics would hurdle all the way to 50c, but for a 40 page package, of which the additional eight pages would all be of content: story and art, and all of it new: no reprints.
It wasn’t exactly original, except for the fact that the extra pages would be all new. Some titles would add them to the previous page count: the Justice League of America would escape the straitjacket of seventeen pages for the relative freedom of twenty-five, but other titles would add back-ups. Old characters unable to sustain series would be revived, new concepts and ideas would be tried with the support of the lead feature.
It was bold, it was exciting, it was one of the biggest fucking disasters mainstream comics has ever suffered.
Because the week the first titles of the Explosion were launched, the sales figures came in at Warner Brothers, and they were bad. Far worse than had been expected. The word came down from on high with the speed and force of a Jovian thunderbolt, and the word was No. No more forty page 50c comics, get back to 32 page floppies, and cut the number of titles. Including scheduled comics which never actually were published, almost half the entire DC line was cancelled in an afternoon, reducing the line to its ‘core’ titles. Everything remotely experimental vanished in a day. The bottom half of the line ceased to be tenable and went into the hole. DC, who had been big with publicity about it’s great leap forward, which had been building its stable of creators, suffered a massive blow to its credibility that the majority at the time thought it would never recover from.
Down the street, at Marvel, its recently installed Editor-in-Chief, Jim Shooter, had been sniffy about the whole thing anyway, dismissive of the idea that the fans would even notice an increase of eight pages, nearly half as much story again. Former editor-in-chief, Marv Wolfman, set about discouraging eager new talent from getting into comics: in five years time, there wouldn’t be any.
We know now that he was wrong, and ironically Wolfman would play a major role in leading DC and, in its wake, comics out of the slough of despond of what inevitably became known as the DC Implosion. Page counts went up, despite Shooter’s arrogance. So did paper quality, and costs, the latter being inevitable given that the only way of further reducing the cost of producing a 1977 floppy would have been to hire a hall and have people pay to sit there whilst the writer read the script and the artist did chalk-talk sketches on a blackboard borrowed from the local high school.
Yet in that era of desperation, when the death of comics was being predicted almost every other week, there were still comics of quality that prevailed over the conditions in which they were created. That was the era of Manhunter, and that was when good writers could come up with pages like the Riddler being made happy by a kid’s riddle he’d never heard before.
They didn’t even need seventeen pages to produce delight that’s lasted with me for forty years, proving yet again that there is something more to life than ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.