Monday, December 17, 2012

I Dialed H for Hero

This summer, I became a member of a very exclusive group of comic book fans. It's so exclusive, that there are only three other members. But before I can tell you about it, I have to give you a history lesson. If you're already familiar with Dial H for Hero, feel free to skip ahead.

The 1960s was a boom time for superheroes. Between the successes of the young, hip Marvel Comics and the campy Batman TV show, publishers were racing to put out as many new superhero comics as possible, no matter how goofy. And there were few as goofy, or with as many superheroes, as Dial H for Hero.

  Arguably, the most popular superhero in the 1940s was Captain Marvel. He was a boy named Billy Batson who, when he spoke the magic word SHAZAM!, changed into the World's Mightiest Mortal. DHFH took that basic concept a step further. Boy genius Robby Reed discovered an alien device that resembled an old-fashioned telephone dial. Studying it, he learned that dialing the symbols corresponding to the letters H-E-R-O transformed him into a random superhero, until he returned to normal by dialing O-R-E-H. For a small Midwestern town like Littleville, an extraordinary number of supervillains and disasters struck in Robby's neighborhood, forcing him to become two or three different heroes in each issue of House of Mystery #156-173.

(A side note to all you young whipper-snappers with no appreciation of history. Yes, this does sound a lot like Ben 10. But DHFH came first, by about 40 years.)

I loved DHFH when I was seven, but it was cancelled soon after I started reading it. I was in college when I discovered back-issue stores, enabling me to complete my collection. Around the same time, DC Comics announced that they were bringing back DHFH -- but with a twist. Publisher Jenette Kahn had an idea for a new comic book in which the heroes and villains would be created by the readers. Writer Len Wein remembered Dial H for Hero, and thought that it would be the perfect vehicle for the new concept. (Marv Wolfman had been planning to bring back Robby Reed as a member of his New Teen Titans, but changed his plans when the new project was announced.)

The new series, running first in Adventure Comics and later as a backup in The New Adventures of Superboy, starred two middle-school students, Christopher King and Vicki Grant, who discovered their magic dials in an old attic. Unlike Robby, their transformations lasted no longer than an hour, forcing them to turn into even more heroes per issue. There were also some light high-school soap-opera subplots to connect the stories. Each issue included a form that readers could fill out to submit their own hero and villain creations. Readers whose ideas were used not only got credit in print, but also received an exclusive "I Dialed H for Hero" T-shirt. Today, those shirts are hard to find, and are something of a collector's item.

The third incarnation of DHFH was titled H-E-R-O, and it was much darker than the first two. The focus was not on the superheroes, but on the different people who used the device and how they handled potentially unlimited power. You see, no one seemed to be able to hold onto the device (it was a pushbutton gadget, not a dial, in this series) for very long. It changed hands every few issues, making this a kind of an anthology without a regular cast. Though Will Pfeifer did a fine job on the series, which began in 2002 and ran for 22 issues, I found it kind of depressing and only read it occasionally.

The device, a dial once again, came back for a fourth time this year as part of DC's "New 52." The current series, simply titled Dial H, by quirky fantasy author China Mieville, balances the goofy humor of the original with the edginess of the third, and has tied itself into continuity by bringing back some of the characters from the second. It's funny and a little bit creepy and just plain fun. The dialers this time are overweight, unemployed chain-smoker Nelson Jent, who's finding that being a hero brings purpose to his life; and elderly Roxie Hodder, who has been dialing for years while also investigating the origin of the dials. Yes, dials. It seems that there have been several of them throughout history, each with slightly different rules, and we're learning more about them every issue. After 48 years, the dial is finally getting an origin story.

This brings us back to the main topic of this post: that very exclusive group of comic book fans. There were over a hundred fans who contributed heroes and villains to the second DHFH series. Out of all of them, only four created characters that came back after that series ended.

One of those characters was the Silver Fog, created by noted SF author Harlan Ellison. He returned in the pages of Teen Titans, because -- well, because he was created by Harlan Ellison. Another was Zeep the Living Sponge, created by Stephen DeStefano, who later became a professional comics artist, and reused Zeep in the Hero Hotline series that he co-created with Bob Rozakis.

(ADDITION 01/03/13: I just learned that there's a fifth member of our little clique. Steve Mattsson,  who became a professional comic book writer, reused his character, the Flying Buttress from Adventure Comics #479, in Superboy and the Ravers and Legion of Super-Heroes. Steve appears to have lied about his age, as his Wikipedia biography says that he and I were born the same year, but his Dial H credit said he's four years younger.)

The last two were a sinister team from Adventure Comics #490 that China Mieville chose to use in the first story arc of the new Dial H series: the Squid, created by Lester English; and the Abyss, created by -- me.

I was about 20 when the second DHFH series was announced, but when I read the news, it woke up the kid in me. Being a fan of Robby Reed, I sent in lots of character ideas, hoping to become a part of Dial H history. Four of my creations were used. I'll write about the other three some other time.

I still remember how I created the Abyss. I minored in Fine Arts, and I was experimenting with different art supplies for a project. I bought a bottle of liquid frisket, a thin rubbery liquid that you apply to an area of a watercolor painting to preserve the whiteness of the paper beneath it. I sprayed a large area of paper with the liquid frisket, spattering it in tiny droplets with an old toothbrush. Then I painted a silhouette in India ink. When it dried, I wiped the frisket off of the page, and was left with what looked like a man-shaped window into outer space. Right away I thought that this would make a great DHFH hero.

My next thought was a little egotistical, I admit. I believed that, someday, someone would publish an index of all the characters that had ever appeared in DHFH, and I wanted mine to be first. So I read through the dictionary, and stopped at the first word I found that fit my creation: abyss.

The writers made a few minor changes to my submission. The Abyss that made it into print was a villain, not a hero -- which is a good thing, since he wouldn't have been revived otherwise. I imagined him as being the size of a normal human, but in the story he was a giant. And in my notes I described how he could use his space-warping powers to draw matter from distant locations -- high-pressure water from the ocean's depth, or hot magma from the earth's mantle -- but in the story, all he did was send people to other dimensions.

A couple of years later, I was at a comic book convention wearing my DHFH T-shirt. A fellow came up to me and introduced himself as Howard Bender, one of the artists on the DHFH stories. He asked me which character I had created, and he remembered the Abyss well enough to draw a sketch for me on the spot. That was really nice of him.

It was a huge kick back then, and it's just as much of a kick today to see the Abyss and the Squid back after all these years. I'm enjoying the new Dial H stories, even now that the Abyss arc is over. If you missed it, the arc is scheduled to be reprinted in a trade paperback collection in late April 2013, which should be available in major bookstores as well as most comic book shops.

I wonder where Lester English is now?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Justice Ink

Most of the toys and games of my childhood were given away, thrown away, or sold when my parents moved out of our old house. But I held on to a couple of boxes filled with memorable junk, most of which is, of course, comics-related. I'll probably write about most of it in future posts. But I was sorting through one of the boxes last weekend, and made a pleasant discovery that I want to tell you about right now.

One item that I knew was in the box was this Batman utility belt from 1966. A mere 25 inches long (though the still-stretchy elastic band extends it up to 30 inches), it fit around my waist comfortably when I was in second grade. It's in amazingly good condition, considering that I remember wearing it while running around playing Batman in the backyard. It's well-constructed, made from yellow vinyl with metal snaps on the buckle and two of the pouches. There's no company logo or trademark notice on it anywhere, which pleased me as a child (after all, the real Batman didn't have trademark notices on his equipment) but surprises me as an adult.

But what surprised me most is what I found in one of the pouches: a bunch of Fleer bubblegum tattoos of the Justice League of America, circa 1969. I remember buying these from a vending machine at the supermarket, but I had no idea that I still had them. The colors are still bright and vivid. Most of them are reproductions of artwork from the actual Justice League comic book, by Dick Dillin, Joe Giella, and Sid Greene.

Some online investigation revealed that there were twenty-seven rub-on tattoos in the series, depicting the entire pre-1969 JLA except for Aquaman. In total, there were six images of Batman, five of Superman, three each of Flash and Green Arrow, and rwo each of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter. I have twelve (plus two duplicates of Batman and Green Lantern). You can see the whole set if you click here, then scroll down to the "1969" section.

I found some online auction sites that suggest there is a collectors' market for these, although most of the ones I've seen for sale include the wrappers and the gum. I didn't save the wrappers, and I never even thought about saving the gum. In fact, I still don'r want to think about it. Forty-year-old bubblegum?



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Did He or Didn't He...?

Here's an oddity. Superman #127 (the February 1959 issue) included a story titled "When There Was No Clark Kent." It had a typical plot for the era -- While working on a story for the Daily Planet, Clark is apparently killed in a factory explosion. Superman tries to carry on without a secret identity, but the lack of privacy and the constant requests for his assistance convince him that he needs his second life as Clark. So, he concocts an elaborate (but plausible) story of how Clark survived the accident, and the status is quo once more.

But the last panel of the story is peculiar. At the very end, in response to nothing at all, Clark thinks "He sure will!" Who is this mysterious "he," and what is it exactly that "he" will do? Is this a cliffhanger ending, suggesting a possible sequel?

I first read this story in 1967, when it was reprinted in Superman #197. Clark's thought balloon was missing from that reprint, carefully removed by an observant editor. In the eight years that had passed since the story was first published, did "he" complete whatever enigmatic mission that Clark had promised? Or was this part of a conspiracy to cover up "his" activities? If so, it failed, because the story was reprinted a second time in 2005, with Clark again assuring us that "He sure will!"

If Superman himself tells me that "he sure will," I have to believe it. Maybe "he" already did. If we only knew who, what, and when, we could be prepared. I don't know about you, but I'm going to keep looking over my shoulder.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Cartoonists in a Nutshell

Way back in the Dark Ages, 1977 to be precise, when I was a freshman at Hofstra University, a magazine called Nutshell published an article entitled "What Doonesbury Hath Wrought." It had profiles of seven talented college newspaper cartoonists, and predicted bright futures for each of them.

I saved that article for the past 35 years. It's time to take another look at it.

I recognized two names immediately: syndicated editorial cartoonist Kevin Kallauger, aka KAL, (whose name was misspelled in the article) and author/illustrator/cartoonist Bob Staake. The other five, I had to look up online.

Steve Blevins is now the "Owner, President, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" at Saxdragon Studios in the Washington, DC area.

Paul Duginski is a graphic journalist for the Los Angeles Times.

Mark Mayerson has been working as a television animator, writer, director, and producer, and teaches animation at Sheridan College in Ontario.

Mark Segelman (whose name also seems to have been misspelled) went in a completely different direction. He's a practicing attorney in San Francisco,CA, though he appears to continue to cartoon as a hobby. He also plays the ukelele. (By the way, Mark's musical pun cracks me up every time I look at it. What can I say? I have a weakness for wordplay.)

I haven't found anything online about Erika Farley (assuming that her name wasn't misspelled) of Emerson College. She might even have a different name now. If you know Erika (or if you are Erika, and found this page while googling yourself) please use the comment link below to send us an update.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Private Hero

Several years ago, a former high school classmate sent me the following story by e-mail. She had heard that I was a comic book collector, and asked me for help.

* * * * * * *
For many months now I have been searching for a very old comic book: Heroic Comics, issue #39, dated November 1946. When my Mom was 5 years old, she and her older brother were playing at a park in the Bronx. She asked her brother what the sign by the lake said, as she couldn't read yet. He told her the sign said "Free Ducks." (It actually said "Caution, thin ice" but he didn't read either... ha ha.) She went out to get a duck, fell through the ice, and almost drowned. A Merchant Marine who had just been discharged saw what happened and ran out to save her. This was all later written up in the newspaper and eventually made it into the Heroic comic book. My parents are both deceased now, and the only copy I have is in really poor shape. I thought it would be great to get a hold of this to show my own children, and have spent many years looking for a copy.
* * * * * * *

Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, February 18, 1946
Heroic Comics (called Reg'lar Fellers Heroic Comics from issue #1 to #15, and New Heroic Comics from issue #41 to #97, the last issue) began in 1940, and was published by Eastern Color Printing, the company that published the first comic book, Famous Funnies #1 in 1933. The early issues of Heroic featured forgettable superheroes such as Hydroman, Man O' Metal, Music Master, and Rainbow Boy. Eventually, the magazine switched to telling stories of real-life heroism, usually military, in comics form. It was during this period that the story above caught the eyes of the editors.

I found a dealer in California who had the issue she wanted, and she bought it to keep with her family records. Some time later, I found another copy at a convention, and purchased it for my own collection. The entire run of Heroic Comics is now in the public domain,  and many of the issues can be read online at the Digital Comic Museum website.

Here is the story of young Rose Marie, and merchant seaman David Sperling of Brooklyn, NY, her own...

Monday, June 4, 2012

Star of Screen, Stage, and Sunday Funnies

There were many tributes printed last month when television actor George Lindsey passed away. Most people remember him for playing "Goober" Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show from 1964 through 1968, a character he continued on the programs Mayberry R.F.D. and Hee-Haw.

But I haven't seen any mention of George's venture onto the Broadway stage. That's most likely because it didn't happen in real life, but only on the comics pages.

In an arc that ran from September 19, 1965 to January 9, 1966, Leonard Starr's wonderful comic strip Mary Perkins On Stage told the story of an actor named Claude Harper (read: "clodhopper") who had been typecast in the role of "Gopher" on the TV sitcom "Corncob Corners." When the show was canceled, Claude took a role in a Broadway play starring the strip's title heroine and a good-looking but talentless television idol named Rod Damian.

Claude flew his fiancée, Corrie, to New York City so that they could be married, but the pretty country girl caught Damian's eye, and he was determined to make her the latest in his long string of conquests.

Did the sweet and naive Corrie fall for the phony charms of the narcissistic actor? Did true love win out? How did Mary's meddling influence things? You can find the surprising answers in Volume Seven of the Classic Comics Press reprint series, Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage.

"Grits 'n grunts?"
Next to the strips of Milton Caniff, this soap opera strip about the world of show business is my favorite dramatic strip. Starr's artwork is crisp and detailed, and he captured the expressions of George Lindsey -- both facial and verbal -- perfectly. All of his characters were interesting and well-developed. I'm partial to the later years myself, but the entire series was an often overlooked masterpiece.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Super Shindig

Next week is the annual four-day Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois. As the only place in the United States named Metropolis, and with the approval of DC Comics, this small town officially declared itself the hometown of Superman in January, 1972. They issued a special commemorative magazine, The Amazing World of Superman, to mark the occasion, erected a statue of Superman, and started a Superman Museum. There were plans to build a huge Superman theme park, but they fell through. But the town does host a huge Superman festival every year at this time. I've never been there, but maybe someday...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

MAD About Tom

The votes have been counted. The winner of the Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year in 2011 is -- drum roll -- MAD Magazine's Tom Richmond. Congratulations, Tom!

Stephan Pastis, having been nominated for the award  five times in a row, still has a way to go to match actress Susan Lucci's eighteen nominations for the Daytime Emmy Award before she finally won.. We're rooting for you, Stephan!

Click here for a list of the other categories and the winners.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Green Lantern Fans, Assemble!

As a lifelong Green Lantern fan, I find this product very cool. As a teenager, I purchased an Aurora Superman model kit in a discount hobby shop for one dollar, and converted it into a Green Lantern figure, using a knife and sandpaper to remove the spitcurl, belt, and boots, and putty to plug up the holes in the shoulders where the cape was supposed to attach. It started me on a model-kit kick, and over a couple of years I converted two other Superman kits into Hawkman and Adam Strange, two Superboy kits into the Flash and Black Lightning, and a Tarzan kit into the super-villain Kobra.

This kit is much cooler, with its transparent plastic power-ring hand and mid-air flying pose. I wish that it had been around back then. It costs almost 25 times what I paid for my discounted Superman kit, but hey, that was more than 35 years ago. Prices go up.

It's made by a company called Moebius Models, which manufactures a whole line of science fiction model kits and products. Check out their website.

I still have one unassembled Superman model kit left. It isn't in the original box, but all the parts are there. I really ought to turn it into something one of these days...

On a slightly different subject, I was just looking at the stats for this blog. Among the search terms that have brought people here, I found (twice) the phrase Green Lather Showcase comic. Should I be foaming at the mouth?

Monday, February 20, 2012

I'll have a Reuben to go

The National Cartoonists Society has announced the three finalists for this year's Reuben Award, the cartooning field's answer to the Oscar. The candidates are:

Stephan Pastis, creator of Pearls Before Swine
Brian Crane, creator of Pickles
Tom Richmond, MAD Magazine caricaturist and current NCS President

The Reuben Award, named for legendary cartoonist Rube Goldberg, has been awarded since 1946. This year's ceremony will take place on May 26 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the fourth consecutive nomination for Pastis, and the first since 2006 for Crane. Only a few outstanding cartoonists have received two Reubens -- Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes), Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts), Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible, Hi And Lois), Gary Larson (The Far Side), Jeff MacNelly (Shoe), Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), Pat Oliphant (editorial cartoons) -- but an amendment made to the rules about a decade ago disqualifies past winners from ever being nominated again.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Now and Then: Dan Danglo

Interviewing Dan Danglo was a pleasant experience. His house is not far from my office, so it was convenient to drop in on him after work. He took me on a tour of his home and basement studio as his wife Rhoda served us coffee and cookies. Rhoda had some of the best stories to tell! Before I left, Dan asked me to draw a sketch for him. They were wonderful hosts, and he's a wonderful artist. And he draws a wonderful, wonderful cat.

This column is from Hogan's Alley #18, which is on sale as I write this:
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Friday, January 27, 2012

Now and Then: Howard Beckerman

My friend Kit Hawkins has often told me about the great animators she's worked with. One day, at a birthday party for her husband, she finally introduced me to one. When I met Howard Beckerman, I recognized him from the Berndt Toast Gang, though we had never actually spoken before. He was a great Now and Then subject.

You can watch The Trip, the animated short mentioned in the column, by clicking this link.

This column appeared in Hogan's Alley #17:
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Now and Then: Emilio Squeglio

Emilio Squeglio is another Berndt Toaster, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he lives in Floral Park, NY, not too far from the Elmont house where I grew up. (We lived on opposite sides of Belmont Park Racetrack.)

Emilio's comic book career was relatively brief, and took place in a time before most artists' names were listed in the credits. So even though I was a fan of the original Captain Marvel, and probably enjoyed much of Emilio's work, I didn't know his name before we met.

In recent years, Alter Ego and other magazines have published articles on Emilio, and much of his Captain Marvel work has come out into the light. I'm glad to be able to add to the recognition he deserves.

This column appeared in Hogan's Alley #16:
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UPDATE: Emilio passed away on March 12, 2012. He will be missed, but his work lives on.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Now and Then: Bill Kresse

When I started attending Berndt Toast Gang lunches, I met many veteran cartoonists whose names I recognized. One that made a particularly big impact on me was Bill Kresse. I enjoyed his "Super" Duper cartoons in the NY Sunday News many years ago. I didn't realize until I met him that the strip only appeared in the News, and was never nationally syndicated.

Bill has a thick folder filled with negative photostats of his "Super" Duper strips (alas, not a complete set), which I scanned and inverted for him. He's been asking me to help him clean them up and compile them into a book. With all the print-on-demand services available today, we may just do that soon.

This column appeared in Hogan's Alley #15:
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Friday, January 20, 2012

Now and Then: Tom Gill

It's hard to find adult education classes in cartooning. When I saw an ad for Tom Gill's class on Cartooning for Fun and Profit at Nassau Community College in 1997, I jumped at the chance to take it.

Tom was a fine instructor, and a fountain of information. So when I needed a subject for my next Now and Then column, I got in touch with him. Among other things, he told me about the Berndt Toast Gang, a Long Island cartoonists club that meets for lunch every month. It was named in honor of the late Smitty cartoonist Walter Berndt, to whom the members drink a toast at each meeting. Joining the Berndt Toast Gang gave me material for several more columns.

Tom Gill passed away in 2005, two days after I interviewed him on the telephone. His memoir, The Misadventures of A Roving Cartoonist: The Lone Ranger's Secret Sidekick, was published in 2008.

This column appeared in Hogan's Alley #14:

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Now and Then: Martin Filchock

I wasn't familiar with the work of Martin Filchock until I "met" his number one fan, G.G. Faircloth, online in a Yahoo forum. G.G. put me in contact with Martin, and gave me quite a bit of biographical information that she had already collected.

Martin Filchock turned 100 on January 6, 2012, making him probably the oldest working cartoonist today. His "Defective Detective" cartoons appear in Looking Back magazine. G.G. Faircloth's cartoons can be found in Scary Monsters magazine.

This column appeared in Hogan's Alley #13:
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Monday, January 16, 2012

Now and Then: Myron Waldman

The new issue of Hogan's Alley, the Magazine of the Cartoon Arts, is on the stands now. The first issue came out in 1994. It was originally intended to be a quarterly publication, but the schedule has been somewhat erratic, and it's actually coming out on close to an annual basis. It's a thick magazine, though, with lots of varied material, so each issue is worth the wait.

Hogan's Alley covers the entire gamut of the cartoon arts, past and present: comic strips, comic books, animation, editorial cartoons, gag panels, and advertising. The new issue, #18, features interviews with Cathy Guisewite (creator of Cathy) and Alvin Schwartz (writer of Superman); a history of Ren and Stimpy; articles on the classic comic strips Invisble Scarlet O'Neill, Penny and Right Around Home; the story behind Charles Schulz's creation of Franklin, the first African-American member of the Peanuts cast; the story behind why Popeye's arch-nemesis is sometimes called Bluto and sometimes Brutus; a history of the Filmation Superman cartoons of the 1960s; articles on gorillas in comic books, and the deaths of comic book characters; an editorial on the vanishing newspaper syndicates; and more.

I began a correspondence with HA editor Tom Heintjes right after the first issue came out. A few years later, when the regular writer of Now and Then (a sort of "where are they now?" column) decided to stop writing it, Tom offered it to me. I've been the writer of Now and Then since issue #12. It's given me the opportunity to get to know some of the veterans of the cartooning field.

I'm going to post my past columns on this blog over the next few days. I hope you enjoy them. If you do, I hope you'll also give the rest of Hogan's Alley a try.

There's a story behind my first column, about animator Myron Waldman. My wife and I were shopping in a neighborhood supermarket, and a young boy took notice of the Superman T-shirt I was wearing. He said to me, "My neighbor used to draw Superman." I didn't recognize the name he gave me, but when I went home, I looked it up and found that Myron Waldman was not an artist on the Superman comic books, but an animator for the 1940s Superman cartoons! Some time later, when Tom offered me the column, I used it as an an excuse to contact Myron and ask to meet him.

Myron and his wife Rosalie were wonderful hosts, and had plenty of stories to tell. Myron passed away in 2006. I'm glad I had the chance to meet him when I did.

Click to enlarge