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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Mort Weisinger

I didn’t have high hopes for the new CW show Arrow. I may have read a couple of issues of Green Lantern /Green Arrow as a kid, but missed the groundbreaking Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil team-up of the early 70s. Whatever relevance the character mustered had vanished by the time Jimmy Carter took office. I preferred the Avengers’ Hawkeye anyway, unaware he was a Green Arrow knock-off. Of course the 1941 Green Arrow was a knock-off too, of Robin Hood. George Papp and Mort Weisinger even dressed him in Errol Flynn’s 1938 feathered cap and tights. Or maybe they were ripping off Paul Gustavson’s Arrow, the first hooded superhero with a bow and quiver, in production before Superman premiered in Action Comics #1.

So, I thought, this is the character the creators of No Ordinary Family pick for their next prime time flop? And the CW, in panicked mourning over the close of their decade-long Smallville, grabs it. A second-string superhero on a second-string network.

To be fair, I’m not the target audience for either corporation. DC aims at twenysomething males, the CW twentysomething females. I’m a fortysomething feminist male, not even second string in demographic terms.

But the network’s and the character’s relative obscurity may be an advantage. Old fans don’t like new writers mucking with their stuff. And the bigger the hero, the louder the outrage. Green Arrow, while a venerable member of the DC multiverse, is no Batman.  That gives the writing team some much needed wiggle room. Fitting spandex to the big screen is hard. Fitting it to the TV screen is even harder. Witness the non-launch of David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman pilot last fall.

Also last fall, in The Death of Spandex, I concluded that 21st century TV superheroes aren’t allowed to wear costumes anymore (Smallville, Heroes, Misfits, Alphas).  Arrow costume designer, Colleen Atwood, challenges that trend, cladding Stephen Amell in leather (the film fabric of choice since X-Men) and spraying a swath of paint across his eyes to replace the dinky domino mask (neither is much of a disguise, but I appreciate the innovation).

But the changes in Arrow aren’t just skin deep. He may dress like a Dark Green Knight, but the creative team is aiming for more than Batman Lite. The Amell incarnation of the character is homicidal. The villain of the week is likely to end up with an arrow through the eyeball. My wife and I watch the show with our twelve-year-old son, and I worried the writers were going the lazy route, giving their hero an unexamined license to kill because he’s, you know, the good guy and good guys are, you know, good, so, like, you know, don’t worry about it, okay?

Instead the killer instincts are questioned, and not just by the Sheriff of Nottingham police chief. Oliver’s love interest is repulsed too, and the flashbacks frame his transformation into a hardened hero in terms of psychological damage. Which is one of the supposed reasons his former bodyguard signs up as his sidekick, a writing trick equivalent to a get-out-of-jail-free card. But at least the writers are keeping all those cards on the table.

This millionaire scion also reverses the Bruce Wayne motive. Instead of witnessing Dad’s murder, it’s Dad’s suicide, a final self-sacrificing gesture meant to redeem his life of villainy. The result is the same—son chases down blamable baddies—but I appreciate the moral twist. And redemption plots tend to trump vengeance plots because the hero and his world aren’t so numbingly black and white.  Also, points to the writers for the literal list of bad guys Oliver is checking off. It’s a perfectly plausible season one gimmick, plus it beats lurking in dark alleys waiting for someone to get mugged, the hidden plot nuisance in most superhero tales.

Finally, some credit to the CW, former home of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wouldn’t call the network feminist, but their marketing bias is a decent antidote to the otherwise testosterone-swamped world of the superhero. That means when Amell goes shirtless, which is comically often, it’s not for my heterosexual pleasure.

It also means that actress Katie Cassidy gets to play a love interest that’s more than a hapless Lois Lane. Sure, most lawyers would recognize their ex-boyfriend despite a hoodie and Christian Bale sound-alike grumble, but otherwise Cassidy’s Laurel Lance is able-minded. She also shares the alter ego name of the DC superheroine Black Canary, so there will be more work for Colleen Atwood if the show makes it to season two. Meanwhile, Jessica De Gouw is slated as the Huntress later this month. And there’s even a rumor the CW is revamping that failed Wonder Woman pilot.

Could superheroines soon have their own cable channel?

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Panel one:

“For the splash page I’m seeing ‘Singulas’ launching himself from the craggy edge of his mentor’s mountain cave for the first time. Bird’s eye view, fists high, cape aflutter, and the bone-thin ‘Onlyone’ seated below, lotus-style, age-beaten face angled to watch his newborn pupil ascending. His mouth should be an ambiguous half-grin. That’s important later. Leave me a wide caption box to recap the origin. I’ll do all the words later.”

That’s the first paragraph of my short story “Script Outline, ‘The One and Only!’ Draft 1.” It appears in the new issue of The Pinch literary magazine. I just  tore my complimentary author’s copy from its mailing envelope. (Something that, even after some thirty-odd short stories, still thrills.)

My superhero, Singulas, is invented, but my (unstated) narrator is Stan Lee just before Marvel hits it big in the early sixties. “The One and Only!” is his first superhero plot, one he’s describing to a freelance artist. I think it’s probably also a lesson in how not to write a comic book script.

Will Eisner in Comics and Sequential Art assures his students that there’s “no absolute ratio of words-to-pictures” in comic book writing, but his example scripts average 40 words of visual description per panel. My panel above is 75. The whole story runs about 4,500 words. I don’t think many of Stan Lee’s “scripts” filled more than a cocktail napkin.

Which was the point.

While DC editor Mort Weisinger was pounding his scripters with endless rewrites, Stan would dash off a verbal thumbnail for Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to beat into shape. AKA, the Marvel Method. The laissez-faire approach had obvious benefits for an overworked editor.  It might also help explain that office closet of unused and unusable story boards Lee hid from his boss in the late 1950’s. (When Goodman found them, he fired everyone but Lee, until the inventory was used up.)

The Lee of my story has more in common with Alan Moore. Surely the most verbose scripter in comic book history. The guy would mail poor Dave Gibbons reams of paper. Watchmen even includes Moore’s self-parody, a faux bio of a fictitious writer famed for “harassing the artist with impossibly detailed panel descriptions.” Moore can fill a single-spaced page for a one panel. More than ten times the Eisner ratio. Gibbons’ Watching the Watchmen includes only a glimpse of the original transcripts, but it’s enough to see the enormity of the artistic task. Gibbons had to code sentences with colored highlighters just to organize all the instructions.

Back in the sixties, Kirby and Ditko were handing their pages to Lee with the captions and talk bubbles empty. Which, paradoxically, is one of the reason why Marvel’s Silver Age comics are wordier than today’s image-centered graphic novels. The artists were careful to leave their boss plenty of room for his witty (though ad-hoc) dialogue.

But Moore’s Watchmen scripts were also personal letters to Gibbons. There are asides and exclamations wonderfully outside the conventions of any formal script outline. And that’s what attracted me to experiment with the form as a short story. The “One and Only!” is a personal letter, not only from editor to artist, but between ex-lovers. Lee and my fictitious freelancer are collaborators both on and between the sheets.

The story is also my first toe-wetting dip into the material I’m now expanding in my novel-in-process. (Working title? “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”) I’m not handing the pages (136 so far) to any stressed-out artists with color-coded highlighters. Though sometimes it would be nice to scribble a few words on a napkin and watch them come back as full blown storyboards. Lee was no fool. But neither is Moore. I recommend aiming somewhere between.

(For anyone in Memphis on Saturday November 5th, I’ll be reading from “The One and Only!” at The Pinch launch party. Festivities start at 7:00 at Splash Creative, Inc., 2574 Sam Cooper Blvd @ Bingham St.)

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