Tag Archives: batman

Losses: They Come In Threes (and Sometimes Fours)

A tough week of losses in the literary/pop culture world, though there’s some solace in knowing that, with one exception, all of them lived to ripe old ages. Let’s start with the most recent one first:

I heard this morning that Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The New Yorker, and the author of countless books and articles, died of complications from lung cancer at age 62.  Hitchens was explosive and ranting, conflicted and controversial — and whether you agreed with him or not (and it was probably impossible to agree with him  on EVERYTHING; he was all over the map), he was always passionate and always an entertaining read. Christopher Buckley wrote a nice piece in (where else?) The New Yorker, which you can read here.

On Tuesday, author Russell Hoban passed away at age 86. Hoban made his living as a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels (most notably Riddley Walker)  — but to me, he’ll always be remembered as the author of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, which Jim Henson later turned into one of the finest Christmas television specials of all time. An American expatriate, it’s probably appropriate that the best obit is here in the Guardian.

Comic book legend Joe Simon passed away on Tuesday at the age of 98. Simon — and his partner Jack Kirby — seemed to have his hand in nearly every comic book genre, from superhero to western to romance to science fiction. In the 1940s, while working at Marvel, he and Kirby created Captain America, then jumped to DC to revamp Sandman (the Simon/Kirby version plays a small but crucial role in the Neil Gaiman revival) and created the mighty Boy Commandos (which was, at one point, the publisher’s third highest selling title).  Simon didn’t always have the Midas touch — he’s got Brother Power, The Geek on his list of creator credits — but his work was always interesting, and Simon was a true gentleman.  His obit in the LA Times is here, but I’m waiting for the long piece being promised by Mark Evanier.

Finally, Batman fans (like me) are mourning the loss of Jerry Robinson, who passed away late last week at age 89. Robinson was one of the true unsung heroes of the Batman mythos—even moreso than writer Bill Finger, whose name still doesn’t appear on Batman‘s title page—for it was Robinson, ghosting for Bob Kane, who drew most of the early installments of Batman and Detective Comics.  And when it came to creating characters, Robinson gave us two icons: Robin, who pretty much became the template for every teenage sidekick that followed, and a villain called the Joker who . . . well, is pretty much the coolest bad guy of all time.

While Robinson never saw his name or Bill Finger’s formally attached to Batman, Robinson was one of the great advocates for creator rights. It was Robinson who helped push (and then basically shame) DC Comics into giving Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster not only a creative byline on all Superman comics, but also lifetime pensions and health benefits. Robinson also served as a teacher at the New York School of Visual Art — where he helped make comics into an art form — and co-wrote one of the finest books on the history of the comic strip, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, which went back into print earlier this year.

Losses, all — but thanks to each of them, what memories we have.

A Blast From The Past: The Midnight Conference

The other day, I received a nice e-mail from Rob Dale at AmDale Media, the fellow who puts together the Comic Fanzine Price Guide. Through a bit of clever detective work, Rob discovered that, back in the late 1980s, I used to write for a Batman-related fanzine called The Midnight Conference (TMC), and would I mind providing a little insight about the ‘zine?

Well, sure.  In those heady days before Batman was ever a money-printing movie franchise, there was The Midnight Conference, a  fanzine produced by a pleasant fellow from Canada named Martin R. Noreau, who printed and distributed the mag mostly out of affection for a character he loved.  I doubt the thing ever made a nickel, but Martin diligently put out the mag for a couple of years, typing up each issue and pasting in drawings, then photocopying, binding and mailing the thing.  This was in the days before computers made things like formatting and typesetting as simple as changing a setting in the template or selecting  a different typeface, and while it wasn’t exactly bearskins and buck knives, it was pretty close.

Eventually the production got large enough that Martin needed a bit of help, so he tapped the pseudonymous lettercol phenom T.M. Maple — who seemed to have a thoughtful letter in nearly every comic book published in the 1980s — to act as his assistant editor.  TMC lasted until the late 1980s, when Warner was preparing to put out the first Batman movie — you know, the one with Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton, which we all groaned about until we actually saw it and decided it was pretty darn cool —  and, allegedly, the Powers That Be at Warner issued poor Martin a cease and desist letter in the name of protecting their copyright. That was pretty much it for TMC.  It folded after thirteen issues. (Meanwhile, T.M. Maple — whose real name was Jim Burke — died of a heart attack shortly thereafter at age 38.  He was a thoughtful guy who genuinely loved comics and couldn’t understand why they didn’t have a more mainstream acceptance. I wonder what he would think about the medium and characters he loved now.)

I was the regular reviewer for the Batman comic for seven issues of TMC. It’s not work I’m particularly proud of — I was still in college, still feeling my way with voice, and when I go back and re-read those pieces now, they bury the needle when it comes to the cringe factor. Yet, I did take the job seriously, banging out what I thought were really thoughtful critiques of Jim Starlin’s take on the character, or discussing whether the art in a particular sequence was helping the narrative. Mostly, though, I was just trying too hard.

Still, from time to time, I scored a coup or two.  For one issue, I managed to nab an interview with writer Steve Englehart, who wrote what many — myself included — still consider one of the finest story arcs in the character’s eighty year history.  Another time, I collared MAD magazine artist Sergio Aragones and paid him twenty bucks to produce a drawing of the Dynamic Duo to use as the cover on what turned out to be TMC’s final issue in late 1988.  Wanna see?  Here you go:

I still have the original black-and-white drawing on the bookshelf in my office. And let me add that Sergio was — and is — a super nice guy with a great sense of humor. He’s still going strong today at age 73. And for the record, this marks the only time I have ever appeared in anything with a great Aragones cover.

…And Now A Word From Our Sponsors

Does it seem like commercials these days just ain’t what they used to be?  Maybe it’s me having one of those stay-offa-my-lawn moments, but teevee spots nowadays just seem too loud and too lame.  Man, I miss the days when commercials had to lure you in with catchy tunes, silly costumes, eager faces, and cheap giveaways.

Like f’rinstance…

Here’s one of my all-time favorite bits — albeit attached to a product I was never really a big fan of — and it’s a jingle so memorable that I still sing it today, much to the embarassment of my 13-year-old daughter:

Then here’s my all-time favorite animated commercial — it’s for Freakies cereal, a cereal whose taste I can’t even remember, but which had the best giveaways in the world, including t-shirts, magnets, and plastic figurines. My brother wore his Grumble shirt for years.

Next it’s a spot for my favorite line of toys ever, the Mego Batman figures, vehicles and playsets. Yes, I still have all of these in boxes in my basement — and yes, my Batsignal still works, and it’s just as cool as it looks here:

Let’s wrap thing up with two spots featuring perhaps the most memorable jingles of all time. The first, from the early 1970s, contains a slew of not-yet-famous actors at the time — including Anson Williams from Happy Days, John Amos of Good Times, and Johnny Haymer, who played Sgt. Zale on M*A*S*H — all singing and dancing their hearts out about their pride in keeping their place of employment spotless:

And finally, here’s perhaps the finest — or at least best remembered — song and dance number of my generation. It features David Naughton, best remembered as the lead in An American Werewolf in London, but who also starred in one of the best, and least watched, one-season-and-out shows of the 70s, Makin’ It. Take it away, David . . .

Atomic Batteries to Power…Turbines to Speed…

. . . and over we go to the Hudson Valley Blog, where I’m very pleased to have them reprinting my “Antient and Renowned City of Gotham” piece from early last week.

Even if you read it here, swing by HHV and have a look by clicking here.

While you’re there, poke around on their website and learn about some of the terrific historic properties they own and manage. You’ll be so impressed you’ll want to suppport their organization right then and there.

Catching Up with the Pope of Prose and the Wizard of Northampton

First, there’s this news straight outta San Diego: Neil Gaiman is writing a two-issue Batman arc — running through Batman and Detective Comics — for 2009. Pardon me while I say Zoinks! You can read about it here and here and here.

And then there’s this interview with Alan Moore, over on L’Essaim Victorieux des Mouches D’Eau. Moore discusses writing, working, and politics — and when the Wizard of Northampton talks, it’s always worth a listen. I mean, where else are you gonna get advice like this:

“If I ever write a book on writing it will probably be called Real Men Don’t Use Thesauri, because no, don’t touch ‘em, I think they’re cheating. What’s wrong with having an enormous vocabulary? What’s wrong with thinking, ‘Oh, there should be a word that means this or that, could it be this, could it be…,’ then making up a word and checking in the dictionary and seeing if there is such a word, and if it meant what you thought it did. That’s better, and all right, you can waste an hour trying to get the exact right word that’s got the right kind of sound, the right flavour, the right colour…that fits just perfectly….

“The thing I’d grab if there was a fire is my Random House Dictionary, which is an etymological dictionary which tells you where the words come from so you actually know what you’re talking about. If you use a word like ‘fascism’ you can actually have a look and see: ‘now where does that word come from, what does it actually mean?’ That’ll save you a lot of embarrassment. It’s also got a great Encyclopaedia function . . . it’s a biographical dictionary, it’s got all famous names and obscure names and dates . . . it’s fantastic. And that is my best Grimoire if you like, my best magic book, because it’s got all the words in the English language and where they come from and what they mean.

“If you’re gonna be a writer, you’ll cover all this territory, from the broadest categories down to, like I say, the sub-atomic detail of words and syllables.”

Read it. Learn it. Live it.


Looks like it’s Batman Week here at Literary Conceits, as we dip into the mailbag for a question from Rich in Ocala, Florida:

“Found your page through your review of the Ten Cent Plague, and I really liked your recent posts about Batman. As a fellow comics nerd, I’ve gotta ask: What do you collect, and how big is your collection? Any particular favorite Batman writers, artists, or stories? Always glad to read a fellow Batfan. Keep up the good work!”

Thanks, Rich. Let me see if I can cover all your questions:

The bulk of my Batman collection consists mainly of three titles: Batman, Detective Comics, and the first incarnation of Brave and the Bold. My Batman run is probably my most impressive, as I’ve got a straight run from issue #120 (December 1958) to #555 (June 1998), with a good number of issues from the 1940s and early 1950s, including this gem from 1957, featuring Batman Jones, who is not me:

My Detective run covers much the same period, though with a few gaps early in the run. As for Brave and the Bold, I was only interested in it once it became the regular Batman team-up book at issue #75 (October 1967). You had to love B&B — only there could you see such bizarre team-ups like this classic from March 1974:

As far as favorite Batman writers, artists, and stories, I’ve always been a sucker for the art of Jim Aparo, who did nearly every issue of Brave and the Bold (as well as most Batman covers in the late 1970s/early 1980s) and for the stories penned by Steve Englehart for Detective Comics in 1977-78. When I wrote for a Batman fanzine back in the late 1980s, I actually had the chance to interview Steve Englehart, and he was still pretty proud of his run on Detective Comics (though even a decade later, he was still annoyed that writer Gerry Conway had brought back the character of Hugo Strange after he had done a thorough job of killing him off).

What’s that you say? Geek check?

Oooh, busted.

"The Renowned and Antient City of Gotham"

Batman fans owe a debt of gratitude to Washington Irving. Why? Two words: Gotham City.

In 1806, 23-year-old Washington Irving was New York City’s worst attorney. Bored with his legal practice — he would allegedly abandon the only client he ever had — Irving persuaded a close friend, James Kirke Paulding, to join him in launching a literary project. The object of this self-published effort, as Paulding would put it, “was to ridicule the follies and foibles of the fashionable world.”

The result of this collaboration, the satirical magazine Salmagundi (a 19th century dish equivalent to today’s chef’s salad), made its first appearance on January 24, 1807 — and it was an immediate smash. Writing under a variety of disguises — Will Wizard, Anthony Evergreen, Pindar Cockloft, Mustapha Rub-A-Dub Keli Khan — Irving and Paulding poked fun at New York fashion, politics, society, and culture. More than anything, it was a 19th century Mad magazine, and at the time, no one had seen anything quite like it.

Despite its popularity at the time, Salmagundi might be a mere literary footnote, a blip in Irving’s writing career, had Irving not inadvertently created a brand name in its seventeenth issue.

Appearing in the November 11, 1807 issue was a piece by Irving describing a (fictional) library full of rare and out-of print books. Among those books was one particular volume—”a literary curiosity”—from which Irving now reprinted a chapter for his readers:


Over the next few pages, in a mock history of New York, Irving related how the “thrice renowned and delectable city of GOTHAM did suffer great discomfiture, and was reduced to perilous extremity.” “The antient and venerable city of Gotham,” Irving continued, “was, peradventure, possessed of mighty treasures, and did, moreover, abound with all manner of fish and flesh, and eatables and drinkables, and such like delightsome and wholesome excellencies withal.”

While the word “Gotham” had appeared in the pages of Salmagundi before—Paulding had made a passing reference to a musician, “a gentleman amateur in Gotham” as far back as issue two—Irving was the first to explicitly attach the name to New York, and to refer to its citizens as “Gothamites.”

The word, which in Anglo-Saxon means “Goat’s Town,” came from a real English town in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood Forest. According to English fable, the King’s Highway would be built wherever the king set foot—and if the king walked through your town, you were sunk, for the throne would then perform a royal taking and construct a highway right down Main Street. To prevent King John from entering Gotham, its citizens — displaying a NIMBY mentality remarkable for the 13th century — pretended to be crazy, behaving so oddly that snickering scouts advised the king to steer clear of the town. “More fools pass through Gotham than remain in it,” the English said, and New York readers grinned in appreciation. The name stuck.

So, there you go. Two hundred years later, Bill Finger and Bob Kane poached Irving’s nickname and grafted it onto their own dark and highly-stylized vision of New York City. In a way, that makes Irving — who created his own iconic American heroes in his own time — one of the grandfathers of the Batman legacy. And Washington Irving — that great lover of pulp novels and secret identities — would probably be pretty proud of that.

First Books: Limited Collector’s Edition C-37 (1975)

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight — which broke all kinds of records this weekend — I wanted to share with you My First Batman Comic.

I first became a Batman fan not because of the comic books or the TV show (which was off the air before I was a year old), but rather because of the Super Friends cartoon, which premiered on ABC when I was six years old. It may have featured a somewhat emasculated version of the Dark Knight Detective (Hey criminals! Wanna make Batman cower? Take away his utility belt!), but, hey, it was still Batman. He was super cool, and I was completely smitten. My life as a fanboy had begun.

But I didn’t actually have any Batman comics until this one — with the clunky official title of Limited Collector’s Edition, Vol. 4, No. C-37 — which my mom ordered through the mail for my brother and me in 1975. Back in the early- and mid-1970s, DC was publishing collections of Golden Age comics in oversize editions, including reprints of the first appearances of Batman and the Flash, which still confound some rookie collectors to this day. This particular issue — under a terrific Jim Aparo cover — was touted as the Batman Special All-Villain Issue!

Needless to say, I read this thing until the cover fell off of it.

The first story, “The Cross Country Crimes!” (a reprint of Batman #8 from 1941) pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, who leads the Dynamic Duo on a murderous chase across the United States. It contained a great hook (the Joker is actually using the first letter of each state he visits to spell out his name), some scary Joker moments (Joker forces a jeweler’s bus off a cliff), and a thrilling fight in a swaying cable car. And check out this great splash of the Clown Price of Crime (complete with that iconic 1940s Batmobile at the bottom):

Next, the Penguin gets his shot at the Dynamic Duo in “The Blackbird of Banditry,” a 1947 story from Batman #43 in which Penguin declares he will “use fictional birds you’ve read about in books … and commit real crimes!” Penguin manages to stay one step ahead of Batman, and at one point even gets the drop on the Dynamic Duo by puffing on a pipe full of popcorn, which explodes into Batman’s unsuspecting face. Then, displaying a mentality that could only belong to a comic book villain, he chains the captured Robin to a wall (with a tightly drawn bow-and-arrow pointed directly at the Boy Wonder’s heart), locks Batman in a nearby cage, and (wait for it) . . . leaves to allow Batman watch Robin face an almost certain Death by Clever Trap.

Naturally, Batman uses a discarded umbrella to make a bow and arrow of his own, and as the Penguin’s arrow screams toward Robin, Batman intercepts it by firing an umbrella handle-arrow into its path — a drawing that always baffled my eight-year-old brain, as it looked to me like Batman had fired a pickle to block the Penguin’s arrow:

But maybe that was just me.

Anyway, Batman eventually nabs the Penguin, and can’t resist taunting him in his jail cell by reminding him of another famous fictional bird. “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!” Batman guffaws. Hilarity ensues.

The last three stories in the issue featured Two-Face (who meets his demise via accidental hanging at a drive-in movie theater, an image that horrified me), the Scarecrow (captured by an old vaudeville trick in which he’s smacked on the fanny by a see-saw), and Catwoman (who models her crimes on famous women criminals like . . . er, well, the wicked queen from Snow White). And if all that weren’t enough, there was even a four-page spread featuring a map of the Batcave (circa 1968) and diagrams of Batman’s equipment, including this sneak-peek at the contents of his and Robin’s utility belts:

I stared at those pages forever, trying to figure out how Batman could get those smoke capsules out of his belt so quickly, or how that laser torch really worked. When you’re eight years old, it doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Come to think of it, it still doesn’t.