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Denny O’Neil: Writing Seminal Comics in the East Village

EDITOR’S NOTE
Much has gone missing in 2020: facts, civility, partying, and, here in the Apple, the annual New York Comic Con. The convention was supposed to take place within the glass and cement confines of the Javits Center from today until Sunday, but has moved, thanks to Covid-19, to a pixilated screen near you.

Another blow: the larger comics realm lost one of its heroes in June, writer Dennis O’Neil. In a short autobiography that appeared in DC Comics’ Showcase #83 (June 1969, featuring his new sword and sorcery character, Nightmaster), O’Neil wrote, “Born May 3, 1939, St. Louis, MO. Parents weren’t aware that my first name is derived from that of a Greek god, Dionysius — god of revels, fantasy, and making-a-fool-of-oneself. Parents weren’t aware, but oh me, oh my, they were prophetic.” He also notes that he had a “usual midwestern childhood, which included large doses of make-believe, fueled by movies and — yep! — comic magazines.” In college, O’Neil studied English Lit, creative writing, and philosophy, then spent time in the Navy, making “the world safe for democracy by deluging the enemy in mounds of press releases.” After discharge he spent time hitchhiking around the country, and ultimately returned to the “Show Me” State to work as a reporter.

But in the mid-1960s, O’Neil’s interest in comics was rekindled when a friend, comics editor Roy Thomas, suggested he take the Marvel Comics writer’s test, which consisted of filling in blank dialogue balloons from a few Fantastic Four pages. O’Neil was soon writing scripts for Millie the Model. But, as the pseudonym he began using — Sergius O’Shaughnessy, cribbed from the name of the fighter-pilot protagonist in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park — portended, O’Neil was seeking higher planes of storytelling. Around this time he moved to NYC’s East Village, where he began writing the stories that would place him in the pop-cult pantheon.

Anyone who has seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the big screen has witnessed the villainous exploits of two O’Neil creations: Ra’s and Talia al Ghul. Both came out of O’Neil’s and artist Neal Adams’s reboot of the Batman franchise in the early 1970s, which replaced the campy glow of the 1960s TV show with noir grit.

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O’Neil’s East 2nd Street digs influenced his characters’ looks and attitudes, most prominently in his run on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow title. Beginning in April 1970 (#76), O’Neil brought the cosmos-roaming Green Lantern down to earth, where the Robin Hood–esque Green Arrow schooled him in the ways of crooked landlords. The masterful Adams enhanced O’Neil’s street-level script with dead-on depictions of dilapidated tenement buildings and boarded-up businesses. In one of the most famous panel sequences in comic book history, a black Everyman confronts the lofty Green Lantern, matter-of-factly noting, “I been readin’ about you. How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. And you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with — the black skins! I want to know how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” Living in the East Village, O’Neil had seen plenty to convince him that intergalactic crime fighters were not the answer to America’s ever-pressing social problems. And so his superhero answered, “I . . . can’t.”

But ever the optimist, the writer soon sent the superhero duo to battle greedy mine owners, crooked judges, racist cult leaders, and other villains of the Nixon era. O’Neil always hung his heart on the sleeves of his characters, one reason his earnest scripts have transcended their time. (The GL / GA run is perennially reprinted.) And certainly, the evil the heroes confronted back then has never gone out of fashion. O’Neil’s own struggles with alcoholism probably colored his ground-breaking plotlines dealing with drug addiction, which won many industry accolades and a proclamation from the office of then mayor John Lindsay. In a later tale, Green Lantern is almost blown to bits when a Weather Underground–style group destroys a townhouse; Adams’s imagery is very similar to newspaper reports (including those here in the Voice) of an actual event that took place on West 11th Street.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

In addition to photos of the blasted dwelling, that March 12, 1970, issue of the Voice also included the headline “Armies of the Night: Drilling for 1972,” for an article about protests against the Vietnam War and concerns over a possible second term for Nixon. In a 2018 interview, O’Neil noted that early in his career, the Village Voice was “sort of my community paper,” and one could wonder if the writer was recalling that Voice front page when he quoted Mailer’s Armies of the Night in GL / GA #79: “Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep.”

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No doubt the Village itself and the Voice (of which Mailer was a founder) influenced O’Neil’s worldview. While Marvel unabashedly set tales of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and other super beings in New York City (even the outer boroughs), DC was more reticent, with Superman flying around “Metropolis” and Batman prowling “Gotham.” There was precedent for this: Perhaps the most noir of New York settings are found in Will Eisner’s Spirit masterpieces, which the Brooklyn-born writer and artist set in “Central City.” Still, when Eisner introduced his raw-fisted, wise-cracking crime fighter’s arch-nemesis, The Octopus, in 1946, the tale closed with the evil mastermind lighting a cigarette on the corner of 43rd and Times Square. O’Neil similarly elided settings, evoking the ramshackle neighborhood he called home in a scene where a wounded Green Arrow cannot find a working payphone. In his own creations, free of any DC backstories, O’Neil favored reality, landing a character such as Nightmaster on the bandstand of “The Electric Band Aid in the East Village.”

Knowing what a fan the comics virtuoso was of his home turf and its “community paper,” we thought we’d see if the Voice card catalog scored any “O’Neil, Dennis,” hits.

Alas, only one, and it’s a pan. As everyone knows, always more fun to read. —R.C. Baker

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Indigo?!?

By Dennis O’Neil

March 21, 1977

SUPER-FOLKS. By Robert Mayer. Dial. $8.95, $3.95 paper.

Someday soon somebody will produce the Great American Comic Book. Surely, there is an ambitious, post-McLuhan kid somewhere who recognizes the essence of the superhero form, the instant mythologizing of contemporary events through the telling of extravagant lies, and is ready to perfect it as cartoon narrative or music or film or even as prose. According to the promotional material accompanying Robert Mayer’s novel SuperFolks, the people at Dial believe Mayer is that kid. They’re wrong.

Not that Mayer is hopelessly inept. With seasoning, he could be pretty good; there’s no reason why he couldn’t write a decent Batman or Spider-Man script, for instance — and, in fact, while a reporter for Newsday, he did write 1/25th of the 1969 spoof, Naked Came the Stranger. But in Super-Folks he has virtually ignored that potential and has opted to be simultaneously cute and relevant. What he’s attempted to do is use superhero conventions in a double-thrusted satire of society and of the comics themselves. Unfortunately, his insight into his first subject is banal, and he has only a dilettante’s knowledge of his second. The result is the kind of smarmy hipness that characterized the godawful Batman television show of the mid-1960s.

Like the writers of the television show, he begins with a fairly standard plot, a variation on the “lost powers” theme. Superman — called, for some forlorn reason, “Indigo” — has hung up his cape and is living the life of a bedroom-community patriarch under the alias David Brinkley. (Everyone in Super-Folks is famously named, not the happiest of comedic inspirations. Brinkley works for a metropolitan daily headed by Punch Rosenthal; he has encounters with a beggar, Nelson Rockefeller, and a  detective, Kojak; his nemesis is the deadly chemical Cronkite, from the planet where he was born to Edith and Archie, before being adopted on Earth by Franklin and Eleanor. And so on.) Gradually Brinkley realizes that he has not lost his superhumanity, as he had thought, and finds himself drawn into a confrontation with the arch enemy every superhero must have.

Not bad, taken simply as the sort of tall tale all superhero stories basically are, and Mayer should have concentrated on realizing it. But he isn’t content to be a storyteller; he has larger, or at least different, ambitions. His opening sentences announce his intentions: “There were no more heroes. Kennedy was dead, shot by an assassin in Dallas. Batman and Robin were dead, killed when the Batcar [sic] slammed into a bus carrying black children to school in the suburbs.” This is the ploy he uses throughout the book, juxtaposing the real and imaginary, and letting the consequent absurdities make his satirical points.

The idea might seem original to those who believe culture is the stuff taught in college literature courses. But those whose taste is more eclectic, who can cherish William Gaddis and Garry Trudeau equally, will find it awfully familiar —after the comic strips of Trudeau and Jules Feiffer, the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany and Phillip Jose Farmer, Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and, of course, Lenny Bruce’s nightclub routines. In short, it’s been done — originally and arguably best by Bruce — and Mayer has nothing new to contribute.

Mayer’s choice of satirical targets js as unoriginal as his literary device: suburbia, the mob, Abzug liberals, Buckley conservatives, conspiracy theorists, adolescent sex — it is as though Mayer were assembling Johnny Carson one-liners for a Modern Language Association stag party.

Despite Mayer’s failure as a social commentator, he still might have produced a funny book if he’d been able to be amusing on comics. But he seems unfamiliar with the subject, as if he hadn’t read a comic in the last 10 years. For the costumed world-saver set is no longer defined merely by extrahuman abilities and Boy Scout ethics. Mayer’s version of Superman hang-ups and hassles would lampoon the Superman concept only if the original hadn’t long since done the same. Benton and Newman could get laughs by portraying the Man of Steel as a nebbish because when their musical Superman was on Broadway comics were relatively unsophisticated. Now, however, superhero scenarists routinely give their characters a full catalogue of interpersonal and existential anxieties; their readers have come to expect them. Again, Mayer’s gimmicks are too familiar to be entertaining. If Super-Folks fails as satire and as humor, what’s left is for it to succeed as a thriller. Here, Mayer is almost a winner. He does write a hell of a climactic fight — grand, cosmic violence with a splendid twist ending. But this doesn’t begin until the last fifth of the novel and that’s way too late. Preliminary skirmishes, to delight us with the hero’s feats and to establish the possibility of the villain’s eventual triumph, are lacking, and since much of the art of the grandiose lie is in the building of anticipation through tantalizing hints at the punch line, this is fatal. Mayer shows us a lot of David Brinkley (Clark Kent) and not enough Indigo (Superman): he emphasizes the cocoon at the expense of the butterfly. Consequently, his climax is too isolated to be satisfying. So, in the end, it is as flat and disappointing as, well, a comic book without cartoons.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

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The Man Behind the Monsters

The Man Behind the Monsters

I first looked at Famous Mon­sters of Filmland back in the sixth grade. Remember: the dark night of our prepubescent souls really arrived at 11 p.m. Friday nights, when Roderick came on and hosted Shock Theater with his assistant, Igor, the personification of what would happen to us if we didn’t sit up straight in class. Our monster club had its weekly meeting on Friday nights, and at one meeting vice-president Brent Griffiths held aloft a pulpy, picture-strewn maga­zine pinched firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his warted chartreuse monster gloves, and said, ”Gentlemen, note this.” We gathered around. As we read the synopsis of The Crawling Eye, a film we’d seen together a few weeks before, and looked over the many stills from Them and It Came From Be­neath the Sea, we knew as inexor­ably as Carl Denham’s hunch about King Kong that here was something significant, something larger than life. 

Today, Famous Monsters of Filmland is the oldest, best monster magazine in the world. It and three other horror comics — Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella — stir deep, deep in the dark, still heart of every complete newsstand and sell for a buck apiece. Nearly three million people read them every year: they are translated into Ger­man, French, and Spanish and are the living embodiment of the most ghoulish publishing empire in the world: Warren Magazines. 

Despite all this big news, I have been waiting to talk to founder and publisher James Warren for 15 years. I walked into the lower east side building along with two delivery boys who were both eating sandwiches. Checking the directory, I found out that, yes, Captain Company, Warren’s mail-order Disneyland of Monsterdom, was also on floor seven. With two boys in the elevator, everything smelling of hamburgers, I thought, “Mundane, mundane, won’t you fellows cease? I’m on my way to meet, in one form or another, the Maker. This is not your ordinary day.” I’d skipped lunch myself, anticipation overwhelming flesh. Face it, I’m going to the source.

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He’d already put me off twice. The first time he was seeing his distributor in St. Louis; the second time I’d called he’d said, “The hell you are! Why, yes, of course. No. not now, we’ve got a deadline. Eerie people are sleeping on the couches. I slept here last night myself and I’m leaving for France at four. Come Wednesday. I’ve got some stuff will knock your eyes out…”

I closed my eyes when the elevator stopped, took what breath I could, and stepped off into Warren’s realm. The lobby is small and tastefully strange. Several poster-size covers from Creepy and Eerie are framed on the wall. There is a red vinyl sheet with “Red Carpet” printed on it, and on the little black marquee behind the receptionist it says: “Welcome today to” and then my name. They’re ready for me.

When I say my name the girl jumps up and opens a door. “This way. Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes.”

We walk past another secretary and into the inner sanctum: Warren’s office. He comes around his large, strangely cleared, L-shaped desk in a thin tie and light blue denim-like sportcoat. He looks like Mort Sahl cleaned up.

“I’m…”

“Who cares, Ron?” He pumps my hand and starts asking me questions. He talks very fast, asking me about myself and my old monster club. “There are hundreds now — yours must have been one of the first.” He nods when I tell him my favorite horror films: still The Crawling Eye (“wasn’t that a great ESP sequence?” he adds), The Body Snatcher before I saw it again. And Dracula’s Daughter, especially the opening and the bridge scene. There is something about Warren’s enthusiasm in interviewing me and talking about these films that puts me on his side before I really want to be. It reminds me of the personal newsletter quality of Famous Monsters, the letter section of which is jammed with notes and photos from readers dressed as their favorite monsters. “Wanted: More readers like Eddie Carbunkle.” And then the photo of Eddie dressed up to look like a 14-year-old weeping lesion.

Finally Warren settles down a little and says, “Okay, shoot, what do you want to know?” I want to know why a grown man would start a monster magazine. And I’m going to be, I remember, hard nosed about it.

Directly behind him on the wall hangs a handsomely-framed six-foot poster of the daughter of his imagination: Vampirella. Actually a combination of Vampira and Barbarella, Vampirella struts about, star of her own continuing series magazine, bat on finger, in high-heel boots and thigh straining, nipple-contoured costume. Originally from the planet Drakulon, where everybody drinks blood as part of the normal diet, she now wanders through picaresque adventures on earth, taking blood substitute to prevent her blood-lust from taking over. When it does, however, she metamorphoses into her bat-persona and latches onto the nearest evil-doer’s jugular. Her life size poster is available from Captain Company for $2.98.

Warren’s entire office seems caught in the schizoid split between New York executive and Captain Company kitsch. One wall is almost covered with his magazine covers: it is a monster fan’s dream (nightmare?) newsstand. The covers — bright, multi-colored, usually air brushed renderings of a charging crowd of neanderthals, or a girl in the worst part of a tattered bikini being carried away by the real creature of one of the lagoons, or a Frank Frazetta Vampirella, her arms skyward, breasts jutting, pelvis thrust and shadowed — are a great part of Warren Magazines’ appeal. It is the covers of the three Warren horror-comics that have given them such prominence in the art-comic world.

The office bookshelves are full of his magazines, deluxe zombie masks that go for 40 bucks from Captain Company, many glossy, coffee-table books about comics, pulp and comic art, and monster films. A three-foot-tall inflated blue hand clenches by itself in the corner. One wall is smattered with photos and awards that he has received over the years; at 43 he is already considered, even as an independent (“Warren Publishing is not one of the big syndicates, one of the ‘big-money boys’ ”), the number-two man in the entire comic industry, right behind Carmine Infantino, head of National Periodical Publications (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel). There is a photo of Warren looking serious in an aviator’s cap, standing on a tank in Israel, where he went last fall to see how it was going. There is a photo of Warren looking amused, standing next to the “Ackermonster,” Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters. There is a photo of bachelor Warren looking sunburned, standing next to an unidentified woman beside the red-striped Warren helicopter somewhere in Greece.

Born in South Philadelphia, the same area that gave us Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Eddie Fisher, James Warren was the only child of immigrants who both worked at the clothing store his father managed. Warren developed an overactive imagination as a child because his parents left him alone all day, and at night he’d listen to the radio and draw pictures of the heroes he fantasized. “I’d stay up until 10 or 11 with my parents’ blessing, as long as I got up to go to school: I became a night person. When I wrote stories, drew monsters or supermen, my parents encouraged.”

Warren spent his 25-cent-a-week allowance on comic books until he got a job at a newsstand where he worked until midnight and consumed every comic that came his way. That was World War II. What did he read? “The new comics: Superman and Batman, the great literature of the times. And I read The Spirit, by Will Eisner, which formulated a lot of my present thinking.” Warren is bringing back The Spirit as a Warren magazine this year.

World War II printed itself indelibly on his mind as he listened to the radio and longed desperately to fly a P-38, a huge model of which he now has in his apartment. “When Korea broke out,” says Warren. “I broke my mother’s heart and enlisted. Tanks. By God, I was gonna get some war stories of my own.”

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HIs war experience, like all things imagined too heavily ahead of time, was disappointing. He returned aimless and restless, lived at home and read Variety, compulsively, “to fantasize that I had something to do with show business.” For three years he worked as assistant advertising manager for Caloric Range Company in Philadelphia, and when Playboy appeared in 1953, Warren watched Hefner’s success and in pipe-dream envy formulated a plan.

After all, he was a businessman, wasn’t he? Wily, profit-oriented, raised on the newsstands? So he quit Caloric and started a magazine called After Hours. “It was a poor imitation of Playboy, one of the first… it showed… girls with naked breasts.” He was promptly arrested, fingerprinted, and booked by the candidate for district attorney. SMUT PEDDLER APPREHENDED! Warren lowers his voice just a little now and leans across the desk as if still embarrassed by the incident. “The headlines were the largest in Philadelphia since Japan surrendered. I was also indicted in Elizabeth, New Jersey, because, as I found out later, the guy was running for office there, too. That was the only issue of After Hours. The case was eventually thrown out. “But that was the low point of my life,” War­ren recalls. 

Already an avid student of culture (he had been right all along with After Hours), Warren was amazed when horror films stopped scaring kids in the mid 1950s. Television had already made some seriously in­tended monster flicks miss and fall into the ever-widening margin of campness. Shock Theater had added, right in the familiarity of our own homes, a spoofiness to horror films — even Frankenstein — that they would never again completely shake. Warren found kids laughing in monster matinees where 10 years before they had only drawn sketchy breath between clenched teeth. It is time, he thought, for a magazine on the monsters from films. 

When he tried to get the money for the first issue of a magazine with the longest title in the country, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Warren was repeatedly told three things (Warren tells this part of the story with the relish all men who have succeeded use when they speak of early oppres­sors, and he gestures, counting the items on his fingers): 1.) It will never sell; there’s no market; 2.) The title is too long; and 3.) You’re nuts. But he scrounged up the funds, and in the winter of 1958, a one-shot magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, appeared on the stands. I was 11 at the time, and my close associate Brent Griffiths (wherever he may be) was part of the reason that FM’s first printing sold out.

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From the beginning, Famous Monsters has been a fanzine, con­cerned with its many readers, pub­lishing their names and addresses for pen pals, their photos, their photos dressed as Dracula (or his victim), sponsoring monster quizzes; and Ackerman, known as the Ackermonster, Count Ackula, Forry, and 4-E to his many fans, gets thousands of letters daily. The magazine still consists, as it did when I first read about The Crawling Eye, of horror flick synopses and stills from the films. There are also features on how make-up men create apes, wolves, and victims of radia­tion out of ordinary, you know, peo­ple. Tributes to newly dead horror stars appear with stills and lists of their films. 

The Ackermonster has a lust for puns that has made the magazine the most pun-ridden in the world. Headlines, captions, stories, even elegies of actors writhe in the agony of watery double-entendre. “Mirdraculous Discovery!” “He nibbled on things a man was not meant to gnaw.” Grave robbers really dig people. Yechcetera! Yechcetera!

Warren estimates his average audience to be 11 ½ years old, but the fan mail spans four generations. In a recent contest for the youngest and oldest readers, the winners were four days and 93 years old respectively. 

“A large group of our most devoted fans seem to be about,” and he looks at me the way one looks at something one has created, “your age.” Many of the people now in their late 20s who were early FM fans have gone on to work on horror films, and Warren has an impressive list of sound technicians, make-up men, and even producers who thank the magazine for some part of their success. Bill Mohalley has been reading it since he was 13, and wanted to work for Warren after reading the first issue. He’s now art director of FM.

Famous Monsters has had as many imitators as Playboy over the years, but the stability of format and layout, and Ackerman’s ungodly collection of over 35,000 stills, have defeated attacks by the erratic and cluttered fly-by-night competitors. The most serious threat now is a tabloid called The Monster Times, started by two people who used to work for Warren. It covers the same route Famous Monsters does, with added features on comic book heroes and monsters. Castle of Frankenstein is by far the most scholarly and analytical of the monster film rags, but it comes out so erratically as to be negligible.

Warren’s other three magazines, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, are the ones under competitive assault. Both small entrepreneurs and large outfits like Cadence Industries (Marvel) are fighting for the weird comic audience: Vampire Tales, Dracula Lives, Tales of the Zombie, Crypt Terror, Weird Fantasy, Shock, Crypt of Terror, Scream, Nightmare, Psycho, Tales From the Tomb, and many others all bite, claw, and scratch for newsstand space. But so far none has really been able to match the superlative cover art and the consistently high level and daring of the Warren magazine graphics. “Art is first with me,” he says, “and then graphics.” Warren is regarded as a maverick, and his habit of recruiting the best artists from all over the world and then giving them total freedom has paid off.

“Here, come here, look at this.” Warren motions for me to come around the desk. He points to a photo taped to the desk drawer. “You know who that is? That’s Stan Lee of ‘the big money boys’ (he means Marvel), and every time I start to get lazy I look at him. Hell, no, I don’t consider any of these imitations compliments! There is only so much horror room on the shelf and they cut into it.” Warren has already defeated Lee’s The Haunt of Horror and Monster Madness, and Warren and Lee came to the edge of a lawsuit a year ago when both of their magazines came out the same month “coincidentally” featuring a female vampire named “Satana.”

Then James Warren makes the golden announcement: “Now, want to see Captain Company?” Out two doors and down a short hall we enter this warehouse of ghoulish delights. All four of Warren’s magazines have only one advertiser: Captain Company, and the last 12 or so pages of each issue teem with ads from this largest monster-oriented mail order house in the country. At one time or another I have wanted everything they offer, and the stuff ranges from the edifying to the very limits of bad taste, “Make-up accessories! Fangy evil teeth! (Outsized incisors to tear people’s hearts out.) Scar Stuff! Vampire Blood! Ugly Kit!”; “Mystery package — do you dare buy it?”; “Hong Kong Gorilla” — seven feet tall, vinyl; monster posters; t-shirts (“Folks will lose their lunch when they see you in this shirt!”); monster books and monster films. As we stroll through the aisles it’s like being backstage for a simultaneous production of every horror film ever made. We pass bins of masks, hands, and feet. Warren stops from time to time. He picks up a “Glow Werewolf” kit and points to the well-known brand name. “See, we send out quality stuff. When some kid saves his money to buy the werewolf, we at Warren think he should get his money’s worth.” I am giddy from being surrounded by such great junk; I covet all of it. Warren rolls up a poster and hands it to me; my eyes must have done something, because he says, “As a momento.”

On one side several aisles of Captain Company resemble a library, and Warren points out stacks and stacks of the back issues of his magazines. Current and back issues of his live and dead magazines (he’s had several cease publication) are offered for sale, and sometimes the prices show that even magazines published in the ’60s are now collec­tors’ items. Famous Monsters of Filmland takes up most of the space. There are now over 105 issues, many completely unavailable. Issue number one has sold for $100. Next we come to Spacemen (1960), 10 issues, “Ahead of its time, it dealt with spacemen of the past and pre­sent”; Wildest Westerns (1961–63), a kind of famous cowboys of film­land; Help (1960–65) a personality lampoon, “a magazine for tired minds,” which Warren worked on with Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman; then three one-issue photo balloon maga­zines based on horror films: Curse of Frankenstein, The Mole People, and Horror of Party Beach, all 1964; and then Creepy (1964–present); Eerie (1965–present); and Vampirella (1967–present). In the mid-’60s Warren put out the most unlikely of his menagerie of maga­zines: Blazing Combat, a black and white war-art comic featuring the master artists of his other magazines, but in a new format. “Bold realism of battle fury! Illustrated front line action!” It lasted only a few issues. Leafing through a copy it seems no more gory than the axe­-ident prone pages of Creepy: “But,” Warren says, “it shows the real, the gory side of war. The whole country was thinking about Viet Nam and… well,” he smiles, “a little ahead of its time.” Back issues of Blazing Combat are rare and go for more than triple the original price.

Warren confesses that without a family he does tend to treat his staff as one. He knows all the wives’ and kids’ names and birthdays; every employee gets his own birthday off. In fact, everybody works his own hours. (Talking to his secretary alone, she told me Warren himself works 15–18 hours a day. He is the first one in and the last one home, spending many nights at the office.) Warren Publishing is his fantasy made fact, his life. “I want people who like what they’re doing, and letting them work when they want insures that. If they don’t feel like coming in, they shouldn’t.”

On my way out we pass the coffers of monster pins adjacent to Captain Company and in a seizure of boldness I say, “Could I…”

“Of course,” he says, and he’s quickly dipping into the piles of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, and Vampirella pins.

“Thanks.”

“Good luck.”

Descending to the street I madly latch all seven pins to my coat and rattle out, berserk, to grab a taxi.

That night at a cocktail party, miles away, when I pinned Frankenstein to the coat of a friend of mine who teaches English at a private school, his eyes flew into that particular conflagration I shared, that torchfire, that sympathy for the monster we all know as youth.

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The Spirit Strikes Back

The Spirit Strikes Back

There was only one great comic book in the ’40s and ’50s, the days when comic books were in their first muscular prime. It was set in a place called Central City, which was obviously New York, and it was filled with darkness. Great dark Gregg Toland shadows, men standing in Fritz Lang pools of light, women with dark hair and inviting bodies. “My name is P’gell,” she said, staring with brutal directness from the splash panel, “and this is not a story for little boys…” The comic book was called The Spirit, and in the last year, as always, The Spirit has risen from the grave.

The old Will Eisner classic is back in a series of handsome buck-a-copy reprints published by Warren Publishing Co. The covers are new, beautifully drawn and colored, and, thankfully, the stories are old. The hard coloring of the ’40s comic supplements and comic books has given way to handsome gray Bendays, which emphasize the lush blacks of the drawings and give the stories a feeling of some old Warner Brothers film, caught forever in the ambiguous light of late afternoon. The stories are brilliant — Jules Feiffer was one of Eisner’s writers — and the artwork is the most expressive ever practiced in comic books — among Eisner’s assistants were Wally Wood, who found his own style in the early Mad, and Alex Kotsky, who now draws the newspaper strip, Apartment 3-G. But more than anything else, The Spirit contained great characters, starting with the lead character himself.

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In the first episode of The Spirit, published as a newspaper supplement on June 2, 1940, a young private detective named Denny Colt challenges the police commissioner, a knuckle-faced character named Dolan to find one of those arch-fiends of the day, a mad scientist named Dr. Cobra (the comics, even before the atom bomb, napalm, herbicides, and the founding of the military-industrial complex saw that warped science might be our greatest danger). Pursuing the mad doctor, Colt gets in a fight, has a vat of chemicals spilled on him, and seems to die of heart failure. Dr. Cobra gets away, and Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery. But Colt is not dead. He rises from the grave, visits Dolan, announces that he will stay legally dead because “there are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but The Spirit can reach them!”

It was a hoary beginning — even down to the stiff, crude artwork — for something that would later become a glory of the cultural backwater known as comics. Now, 23 years after the last Spirit comic, the masked man is back.

I went to see Eisner recently and talked to him about the comeback.

“I kept hammering him back into the box,” said Eisner, a neat 58-year-old New Yorker with precise features, a trim mustache, and a businessman’s style. “He kept coming out. I was the head of a firm that marketed educational materials, social studies enrichment material, and I was heavily involved in that until suddenly… well, not so suddenly, something started to happen. Over the years, there had been European reprints of The Spirit, and gradually I began to get a lot of mail. Guys wrote in asking for originals, which I never sent, and then they asked for old proofs, and then there were requests for interviews. Suddenly I became aware that there must be something going on out there. Then, two, three years ago, somebody out of a clear blue sky asked me to attend a comics convention, to give me an award. Hell, even from the plumber’s convention an award is good.”

Eisner laughed, doodled with a pencil.

“So I went down there. Burne Hogarth (the best artist Tarzan ever had) was down there and I gave a talk, and I suddenly became aware of the enormous underground market. You must understand that the underground concept is very close to me. I started as an underground sort of artist, although it wasn’t called underground in those days. My whole origin came from breaking into established markets from the outside. Original comic books were practically non-existent when I started. It’s hard to claim that you’re the first of anything, because you never know what the guy across the street is doing, but certainly I was among the first guys to make original comic books, with original art, rather than reprints of newspaper stuff.

“It was, let’s see, ’37. 1937. My first work was sold to something called Wow Magazine, which was an attempt at a broad juvenile magazine, and it very promptly went broke… But it made me aware that there was a potential there. So I formed a partnership with a fellow named Jerry Iger. I was like 19 years old, but very entrepreneurial.

“At the time, something else was happening: the pulp publishers were going broke. Popular Publications, Street & Smith, Muncie were all dying. They started looking for new things to publish and some of them were even putting comic strips inside the pulps. So we hit on a publisher and convinced him that he ought to publish comics. He said yes, but that he had no way to get comics. At that time, the comic books — like Famous Funnies — were just daily strips pasted into a sequence. So I said, ‘We’ll do original work.’ He said okay, but he would only pay the rate he would pay for proofs from newspaper syndicates, $5 a page. So we told him we had five artists as Eisner and Iger, which wasn’t true. And I turned out five different scripts in five different styles.” Eisner laughed: “There’s a lot of stuff around with names like Willis Rensie, which is my name spelled backwards, and Spencer Steel. Spencer Steel: I always like to be called Spencer Steel. Especially where I come from. It had a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it.” (He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)

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“I soon had a staff of 15 guys working an operation that looked like a galley ship. I sat in the center and along the oars were the pencilers and paste-up people and inkers and so forth. I was writing the stories, and passing them down, and drawing the heads or something. At $5 a page, we made about a buck and a half net profit, which added up, strangely enough. Later on, as the publishers got smarter, they insisted on owning the properties, so that features we owned, like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, ended up with a separate life.”

By late 1939, after Superman and Batman had taken off, some newspapers started inquiring about having ready-made comic books of their own. Eisner teamed up with a man named “Busy” Arnold, a former newspaper press salesman, and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

“You know, we were just emerging form the depression,” Eisner recalled, “and there were a lot of new ideas generating, and newspapers were beginning to smell death at the time. Technology was improving, offset was coming in, and all of these things were having an impact on the publishing industry. Anyway, after some discussion, we formed a partnership. Newspaper delivery systems, as you know, are very inflexible, with six-weeks lead time, and you need someone producing the material who is dependable. I had that reputation. We had a big package deal, that included Police Comics and Uncle Sam comics, and Busy Arnold and I became partners. His real name was actually Everett, and I don’t know why he was called ‘Busy,’ because he wasn’t always that busy. Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much in my hands, including the editorial judgement, which was a tremendous break, especially when you’re 21 years old and full of beans. I had no idea what I’d do, except that you always have something on the back burner that you want to do if you’re let loose. For me, that was The Spirit.”

Eisner knew from the beginning that the key to its success would be its stories. Most comics at the time were simple-minded versions of movie serials. Eisner’s work had to be self-contained, and so he focused on the short story as his model.

“I was an avid short story fan, but more importantly, I suppose, I was a frustrated serious painter and a frustrated serious writer. I could do both reasonably well, but not well enough to make a name for myself in either media by itself. But with the euphoria you bring to something when you know it’s the big time, I attacked it as if I were a young Dostoevski. I also equated myself with Ben Hecht and some of the pulp writers, who were my heroes at the time. Short stories are sort of dead now, but they were very big in the ’30s.

“The title — The Spirit — was the result of about 15 names I’d listed, and I really had no intention of making him a ghost. I didn’t want him to be a super-hero, because I had been grinding out super-heroes, and knew what super-heroes were all about. But at the same time, I knew that I had to have an identification; there were certain perimeters you stayed within, or accepted formulas that would augur success. The syndicate sales­men were selling a product, and they wanted it to look like a product they could sell. I promised them a detective. That was fine: a detective could sell. And I promised them a complete story every week, and that was novel, because most people had to wait six weeks to finish a story in a newspaper strip. So we tried to get as much plot into a single episode as the dailies got in six or eight weeks.”

The first 16-page weekly comic book featured The Spirit and two other features. Eisner decided that the load was too much and sold his interest in Eisner and Iger (which was still free-lancing comic art to other publications) so he could concentrate solely on The Spirit.

“When I think back about it now, it was an enormous decision,” Eisner said. “But when you’re that young, you know, you feel impervious. It’s like young pilots in Vietnam, saying: ‘What do you mean I’m going to get killed? No one can kill me: I’m 21 years old.’ I remember Iger trying to dissuade me, saying that The Spirit might not sell in the newspaper business, it could be dead in a year. I said, “I’m immortal. I’m Superman. I’m going to do it.’ ”

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The high quality of The Spirit was probably traceable to the oddity of its being a newspaper supplement, rather than a newsstand comic book. Eisner said that in those days the average comic book was written for an eight- or 10-year-old mind.

“But I had a totally different audience. When you’re writing, you’re writing for someone: you, or a little old lady in Brooklyn, or whomever. I was writing to adults. I was writing to college students. I was writing to kids. We started with three papers and grew to 19 or 20, and I also knew that I had a Bible Belt out there to worry about. If you spent a dime on Superman it was because you wanted Superman. But here was a comic that came into the house on Sunday because Pop went out and bought it for the news.

Eisner quickly discovered an enormous freedom and range in possible stories.

“I could pull out the stocking and I could make mistakes,” he said. “If I did a lousy story this week, it was only that week, and I could do a good story next week. And I did have ups and downs, because there are weeks when you go dry. In the beginning I had more good ideas than I could produce, but as time went on, of course, I used them up. Then I started generating new stories out of the newspapers themselves. That went on for a year and a half, and in 1942, I was invited to join the armed forces.”

In the army Eisner was an aide on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, and later started doing cartoon instruction strips for a magazine called Army Motors; he still maintains an interest in the use of comics as an instructional device. The Spirit continued, with Lou Fine drawing it for a while, along with the great Jack Cole (famous in his own right as the artist of Plastic Man and then as a Playboy cartoonist in the magazine’s early days).

In early 1946, Eisner came back to New York and The Spirit and, from 1946 to 1950, had what he calls “four glorious golden years.” It was at this time that Jules Feiffer went to work for Eisner. “We’ve had a remarkably good relationship over the years,” Eisner said of Feiffer. “There’s a tremendous empathy between us. Psycholo­gically we’re very much alike, philosophically we’re much alike… Those were the vintage years for me… A lot of collectors are into the early, pre-war Spirit, but as I look back now the drawing is very, very crude. I think what attracts the collectors or so-called historians is the obvious fact that I was experimenting so vividly, so aggres­sively. There just was nothing like The Spirit in existence. King Features came out with an imitation called ‘Red Barry’ or something, but it died in a couple of months. It just didn’t haveI guess the word is elan.”

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The post-war Spirit was the world of lush blacks, unusual angles, great humor, all of which had been present in a cruder form in the earlier version. The difference, Eisner said, was that the war had matured him — ­and his work: “The early Spirits were done by a young kid barely out of high school, who lived a very cloistered life, when you con­sider that most cartoonists live a cloistered life. I mean, 90 per cent of a cartoonist’s time is spent at a drawing board in a fantasy world. Occasionally you get up and tell the plumber, ‘Yeah, the pipe is over there,’ or whatever it is, and you do go out and buy lunch. But one of the great occupational hazards of this life is that an artist spends an enormous amount of his life in the nice soft womb of a studio. Now with the rates higher, it might be possible to spend six months on one book, as if you were writing a novel. In those days, I was functioning the way, say, a TV series writer works, and you don’t expect great masterworks under the circumstances. Of course, I was functioning as the writer and the director. I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and I keep telling the students that you’re the actor, you’re the author, you’re the screenwriter, you’re the cameraman, you’re the director, and you’re the cutting editor. I hold to the idea that the comic strip author should be writer and artist.

I asked Eisner how much he had been influenced by movies.

“My early life was spent in the Brooklyn movie houses, those marvelous temples of fantasy. That’s where my life experience came from, by and large, with the exception of a couple of street fights. As a kid, I used to go and look at Man Ray movies, all the experimental films that the New School used to run in the ’30s, and in high school I very seriously considered going into theatrical design. I was very theatre oriented. The answer is yes: I was always motion picture oriented. I thought of a comic strip as a movie on paper. Or put another way, movies are comic strips made to move.”

Eisner loved Fritz Lang’s movies: his cartoonist heroes were Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Popeye’s E.C. Segar, and George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat pages ended up in museums. But he said he didn’t con­sciously steal from anyone.

“There’s no such thing as stealing, really. There’s a difference between stealing and imitation or slavish emulation. If you’re emulating a guy, and you’ve got a strong personality of your own, you’ll always devel­op your own style anyway. Some artists serve as jumpoff points for other artists. For example, George Herriman showed me that you could develop odd and abstract back­grounds without any realistic relation to what was going on. It isn’t much of a jump to say, ‘Ah yes, he showed me the way and now I’m going to improve on the idea.’ Writers showed me. Conan Doyle, for example, helped me tremendously in writing balloons. Balloons are like writing telegrams. You’re constricted in space, you have to make every word count. You learn there’s a dynamics of words, that words have visual impact. The word ‘shit’ on paper doesn’t look as horrible as it sounds, so you have to find another word to make it sound as horrible. ‘Glak!’ sounds like a man choking or dying when you write in on a page, but it doesn’t sound the same when you say it. Conan Doyle’s style was largely dialogue, three or four pages of crisp back-and-forth dialogue where the reader knows exactly what is going on, and even knows how the man feels. So I learned from that. And combined with pictures, it becomes an art form in itself.”

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The Spirit revival started when Eisner granted a man named Dennis Kitchen the right to reprint some old Spirits in an underground comic, for which Eisner drew a new cover. It sold out. They did a second and that too sold out. Meanwhile, a magazine called Tin Tin in France was also publishing the old Spirit stories, with Eisner’s permission, and “soon I was back in the Spirit business.” Then several New York comic publishers offered to revive the strip. But Eisner started talking to Jim Warren, who wanted initially to do a Spirit poster, then to scatter Spirit stories through existing publications, and finally agreed to a full-scale revival in a magazine entirely devoted to The Spirit. “I know Warren,” Eisner explains, “and we have a philosophical compatibility. But if someone asked me why I gave it to Warren, I’d say, because he cares.”

Eisner had saved all the original artwork, which was in good shape “except for a coffee cup stain here or there.” Warren hired a fine underground artist named Rich Corben to color the first two issues: Eisner and an assistant did the coloring in the six that have followed, and he has also directed the appli­cation of the gray Bendays that have given the strips such a handsome texture. There are 240 old stories, and they will start to run out in 1976. So Eisner is preparing to write new ones. Where will the new material come from?

“The newspapers,” he said. “I did that from the beginning. I remember, back in 1941, they were building the Lincoln Tunnel and there were a lot of stories about sand­hogs dying and so forth, so I used that and built a story around it.” I mentioned a fine Spirit story of 1947, based on the great blizzard that year, in which The Spirit is trapped in a sewer because he can’t raise the snow-covered manhole covers. All of the stories seemed to draw on the life of cities.

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Only a city dweller can be aware of the real signifi­cance of a snowstorm. A snowstorm in the country is really something to ride over, you know. It’s part of the landscape, no different than the rocks and the mud. But a snowstorm in the city is the equivalent of dropping the atom bomb. Think about it for a minute. If you and I were mad scientists here, and we were going to tie up the city of New York… Let’s say it’s a military exercise, so that the people of the city of New York couldn’t get out of the city of New York. You wanted to capture New Jersey, but you wanted the people of New York to be immobilized for 48 hours or more. Well, you could bomb all the bridges at the same time, but they would still get across the river. But settle 14 to 20 inches of snow on the city! It does things like immobilize manhole covers, it immobilizes traffic, it’s a real thing! Only a city kid, only a person who’s lived in the city and learned how to survive in the city and regards the city as his jungle, so to speak, can be aware of how enormous that would be.”

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Eisner’s work at its best contained a kind of urban poetry, and I asked him if the lyric strain had come from the same things that had produced similar qualities in such di­verse Brooklynites as Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.

“We were doing different things, but sure! What we were doing, all of us, was weeping inside the ghetto walls. ‘Outside the ghetto walls was another world,’ we were told. But I mean ghetto, inside the walls of the city, a kind of medieval city in which you’ve grown up. Your plan is really to climb one of those walls. Some guys do it by marrying a nice blonde Gentile girl and living up in Westchester with her family. Some guys do it by becoming a basketball player, or a boxer: in those days everybody was going to be a boxer. Or the other guys say the hell with it, I’m going to join the mob and I’m going to make it. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. From the time I was eight years old! So guys go to movies, read books, they know there’s another world out there, and how things could be. You learned from everything. You lived in the tenements and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cohen living to­gether. As a kid I could watch him banging her, or him beating the shit out of her. Now, television does that. It’s like a window into somebody else’s house, from which you glean what life is about. Even television. It shows you a world that doesn’t have a sense of realism, but from which you draw some of your life experience.”

Eisner is clearly enjoying the increasing interest in The Spirit and the realization that some of the strips approached art.

“Sure, most of it was crap,” he said. “But when I grew up, along with my peers — the Jack Kirbys, the Jack Coles, the Siegel and Shusters — we were learning the merchan­dise. We were cobblers, not shoe designers. When I was at the Art Students League, I was taught that art was synonymous with one or two mediums. An oil painting is art. An etching is art. A mural is art. But a comic strip is not art, or was not art. This seemed always to me a great injustice. But we were making art. I prefer to call it sequential art. Daumier, Goya, the people who made 13th-­century broadsheets: they were making se­quential art. I think we’re poised now to treat other kinds of subjects. More sophisticated subjects. Comics have dealt with only one theme for the last 30 years and that was Crime Does Not Pay. Yes, there were Jiggs and Maggie subjects, or A Monster Is Going to Take Over the Earth. But it’s still ‘crime does not pay.’ My one condescension to the medium — the way I had to pay my dues­ — was to make The Spirit a crime fighter. Your new people will be touching on subjects that are more sensitive, if not more serious. Me: I’d like to do a novel in this medium. I’m at a stage of affluence where I can afford to do it without worrying whether it will sell or not. The trouble is that it’s a two-year project, because the fastest anybody can move is about a page a day. At least that’s as fast as I could go. But even then it’s not so much the length and the physical limitation, it’s the story, the plot. It would have to be serious stuff. What I’m talking about is that instead of doing ‘Crime and Punishment,’ by a fellow named Dostoevski, I would have a story by Will Eisner.”

Eisner smiled, and doodled.

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ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives show-old-images

Beautiful Art in an Ugly Year

The vibe throughout 2017 — white supremacists are “fine” people, the top 5 percent need tax cuts financed by the bottom 95 percent, Vladimir Putin is a great guy — has been pretty ugly.

Pretty. Ugly. Those last two words sum up my personal highlight list for a brash and belligerent year. Let’s start with Fantagraphics’ collection of the “Trashman” strips and other graphic provocations by the underground-comics pioneer Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez. Spain (1940–2012) was an art school dropout, a member of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club, and a factory worker in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. His job as a janitor (one who read the Trotskyite newspaper The Militant) imbued Rodriguez with a strong class consciousness that found its way into the “Trashman” comics he began drawing for the East Village Other counterculture paper in 1968. Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 ($29.99) recounts how Spain and fellow cartoonist Kim Deitch lived in an Avenue C tenement where muggers roamed the hallways and “glue heads” clawed their way through the walls to rob tenants. But Spain, having brought his biker mores with him from upstate, was no easy mark. “I saw him beat my brother Simon up once or twice,” Deitch relates in the book. “He had it coming. Spain has sort of like short jabs. He didn’t do it sadistically. If he thought you were out of line, you could get beaten up by Spain but he didn’t lovingly linger over it.”

Trashman hustling across the pages of “Subvert Comics” #1, 1970

In the late 1960s, Spain was making the princely sum of $40 a week to draw comics, and the exhilarations of his hardscrabble lifestyle can be seen in the abilities of Trashman — a/k/a Agent of the Sixth International — to best the lackeys serving nefarious capitalists with his fists, boots, and small arms. A sort of proletarian James Bond, Trashman “received messages from cracks in the sidewalk and could transform into a copy of last week’s East Village Other when he was in a tight spot, and blow unseen down the street to escape,” as the book’s author, Patrick Rosenkranz, puts it. Spain’s socialist leanings perhaps explain why his female characters were as adept as men at urban combat, and why the women expected as many orgasms as the macho bikers they hooked up with in numerous X-rated scenes.

Trashman goes after the Man; “Subvert Comics” #2, 1972

Coming of age in the 1950s, Spain read the popular EC family of comic books, which included such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Two-Fisted Tales, taking in the voluptuous line-work of a master like Wally Wood and the athletic body language conveyed by the brilliant illustrator Jack Davis. Expanding on these youthful inspirations, Spain developed a signature blend of heavy black contours, drastic perspective, abstract expressionist ink splatters, and helter-skelter panel layouts to propel his breakneck tales of class war and free love.

While not as graphically outré as underground comics, Kirk Hayes’s paintings deliver high-octane aesthetics and unexpected formal jolts. On wandering into his show at Horton Gallery earlier this year, I was struck by the florid characters and disembodied limbs galumphing through existentially bleak landscapes. Arms rise out of ash pits in scorched earth, in one case flashing a middle finger, in another groping for perhaps the last flower left after some garden-variety apocalypse. Hayes’s figures at first look to be constructed from scraps of painted card stock or particleboard, crisscrossed with masking tape, everything glued to wood-panel grounds. But close study of the black shoe with rough-cut edges in Old Artist Pissing at the Moon (2016) reveals that the images are not collages but instead trompe l’oeil painting. What look like snippets of yellow yarn poking through the board above the cartoon artist’s foot are in fact dollops of oil paint. (Hayes, it should be noted, isn’t that old for a painter — he was born in 1958, in Fort Worth, Texas, where he still lives and works.)

Hayes’ “Death Mask Sitting with Cigar,” 2016

In 1929, René Magritte titled his famous painting of a pipe The Treachery of Images. Accompanied by a caption in French spelling out “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist emphasized the point (among others) that an image is emphatically not the object it represents. But where Magritte gave us an illustration, Hayes deceives the eye by employing painstaking illusion. He first constructs a bumptious collage of homely materials on a wood panel and casts a strong light across the surface. Then, on a new wood panel of the same size, he exactingly copies in oil paint every rough edge, soft shadow, scraped surface, overlapped tape layer, burn mark, pencil scrawl, and wood-grain pattern of the 3-D construction. When his trompe l’oeil doppelganger is finished, he destroys the original.

Hayes’ “Hair Brush,” 2016

Collage is a tricky business, in which existing forms are melded into new entities, as when Picasso combined handlebars and a bicycle seat to create a bull’s head. Hayes ups the conceptual ante by employing wire to signal “arm hair” or “brush bristles” and then painting dead-on portraits of such ridiculous assemblages. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Hayes’s abject figures are cobbled together from disparate parts that take on an uncanny life of their own.

Another painter with a bent for oddball characters, Rosalyn Drexler populates her canvases with dapper gangsters, tragic celebs, troubled lovers, and other tabloid denizens. Born in the Bronx in 1926, Drexler received little recognition for her prescient pop paintings, done in the early 1960s, and filled the gaps between exhibitions by writing award-winning plays, television scripts, newspaper articles, and numerous novels. In 2016, a retrospective of her artwork toured the country, but the closest her visions of mob hits, prize fights, cinematic lovemaking, and other larger-than-life happenings came to Gotham was Buffalo’s Albright Knox Art Gallery, which made it all the more pleasurable to see a survey of Drexler’s work at Garth Greenan Gallery this past September.

Drexler’s “Priapus Accepts,” 1963

In a career spanning the American Century, Drexler has used enlargements of newspaper and magazine photos as templates for her audacious compositions, whether Chubby Checker doing the Twist in 1964, a dual portrait of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1988, or — still the indelible image of America in the new millennium — a ghostly, arms-spread figure with flapping suit coat in 2012’s Man Falling.

Drexler’s study for “How Long Have You Had These Fantasies,” 1988

Drexler’s sparkling blend of absurdity and pathos has not waned over the decades. In 1966’s It Isn’t Me, we see a woman depicted on a flat red background (Drexler’s settings are invariably stark and boldly colored, isolating her figures) holding up her hand to hide her face, a stylish black handbag complementing her white dress. Is she fending off a jilted lover, the law, or paparazzi? Fast-forward to 2012’s Nobody’s Fault, in which a man in a sleeveless T-shirt hunches forward — whether he’s crying or suffering a hacking cough is unclear. The wavy black and ocher background may be a distant mountain range, or perhaps a lover’s contours seen in the figure’s imagination. Created almost half a century apart, these two images encapsulate Drexler’s enduring magic. We may not completely fathom her narratives, but her vivid shapes, wholehearted colors, and always-evocative titles convince us we’ve experienced them.

Some of the earliest glimmers of American pop culture arose from the late-19th-century newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In 1896, looking to boost circulation by cajoling readers away from his rival’s publications, Hearst ran a promotional ad in his New York Journal trumpeting a new, full-color comics section: “Eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a lead pipe. That’s the sort of a Colored Comic Weekly people want — and — THEY SHALL HAVE IT!” In George Herriman, A Life in Black and White (HarperCollins, $35.00 hardcover, $4.99 e-book), which won the 2017 Eisner Award for best comics-related book, author Michael Tisserand recounts how, fully three decades after the Civil War ended, “colored” comics were a plus for a newspaper, but “colored” skin was still a negative for U.S. citizens.

Left: Self-aware Krazy, 1941; right: Ignatz in his glory, 1934

Although his birth certificate listed him as “Colored,” George Herriman (1880–1944) passed as white, and was known as “the Greek” among his colleagues at the turn of the 20th century. In those days, cartoonists were a big circulation draw. Pulitzer’s New York World featured Richard F. Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” comic strip, which followed the rough ’n’ tumble adventures throughout the city’s tenement slums of a jug-eared, bald-headed tyke in a yellow smock. The series became immensely popular, so Hearst hired Outcault away from Pulitzer to start a new strip that would still feature the “Yellow Kid,” as the character had become known. But Pulitzer owned the rights to the original urchin in Hogan’s Alley, and kept the strip running with a different artist.

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The competing kids in their yellow attire, both prominently featured in papers known for sensational headlines and stories that ebulliently skirted the truth, gave rise to the term “yellow journalism.” This was the atmosphere in which Herriman came of age, and as a journeyman cartoonist he did his share of propagandistic political cartoons, hoping to win a permanent staff job at a Hearst newspaper, since the boss had a reputation as a huge comics fan. No one can know, however, how Herriman contended in his heart with such headlines in Hearst papers as “Talented Co-Ed in Chicago Proves to Be Negress,” for an article about a popular student who briefly passed as white in a failed quest to join an exclusive sorority. “We all liked her very much until we found out the facts,” one of the white students who blackballed her said.

An American visionary’s self-portrait with friends.

After many short-lived strips, Herriman launched Krazy Kat, in 1913, and the art form has never been the same. In a phantasmagorical version of Arizona’s Coconino County — a polychromatic desert where night and day might switch from one panel to the next — the indeterminately gendered Krazy pines after Ignatz Mouse (who returns the Kat’s affections by hurling bricks at his/her head), while “Offissa Pupp,” a dog in love with the cat, in turn hounds the mouse. After a fashion, it all made sense: If a black visionary could pass as a white cartoonist in America, why couldn’t his characters live in a world of fluid genders and backdrops—and even long for species miscegenation?

Krazy Kat was meta in a hurry—in a 1926 episode, Krazy questions the very existence of all the inhabitants of the strip, asking in the third panel, “Why, where was we before we came into that first picture up there?” This conundrum of fictional beings wrestling with their place in the universe and the nature of their “creator” will resonate with anyone who has laughed and winced at the travails of a pair of Shakespeare’s minor characters elevated to the confused leads in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Krazy has an existential moment, 1933

Tisserand’s painstakingly researched biography reveals how Herriman deflected the racial animus that constantly surrounded him (and which was barely held at bay by his light skin and the hat he always wore to cover what his colleagues termed “George the Greek’s kinky locks”) into fodder for his funhouse-mirror vision of America. In 1961, James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Tisserand gives us some idea of how, decades earlier, Herriman, rather than go mad, went surreal, creating a community in ink where creatures of every stripe went along to get along. Even if they might at times antagonize one another, they would never stoop to hate—in Herriman-land, throwing a brick was an unintended expression of love.

Few artists can predict if they are going to be immortal, but Herriman must have had a glimpse that the sui generis beauty of his graphically dynamic layouts, endearing characters, and pungent patois would live into the ages. (The strip ran until Herriman’s death.) Although Krazy Kat was never wildly popular, its fans, including Hearst himself, were intensely loyal, and successful cartoonists as varied as Charles Schulz (Peanuts), Will Eisner (The Spirit), and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) cite it as a major influence. (As did the painter Philip Guston, and singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has Krazy and Ignatz tattoos.)

Meta in a hurry: Ignatz with a painting of himself in jail, 1927

Ultimately, Herriman was keenly aware that he lived in the penumbra of white America’s shadow, a realm that could always grow suddenly much darker. Tisserand quotes a famous passage that is often shorn of context—in a 1917 strip Krazy finds a Ouija board and asks the spirits who her enemies are. When the planchette spells out “I-G-N-A-T-Z,” Krazy stomps the board while exclaiming “T’aint so!! T’aint so!! Ignatz is my friend.” In the following panels Ignatz finds his ruined Ouija board and vengefully pastes Krazy with a brick, thereby convincing the Kat that the mouse does, in fact, love her.

Such feints and misunderstandings were mainstays of the strip, and might, in retrospect, shed light on Herriman’s negotiations between prejudice and the pursuit of happiness in these United States, which lends the oft-quoted lines in the last panel of that Sunday’s strip an even deeper poignance:

You have written truth, you friends
of the “shadows,” yet be not
harsh with “Krazy”
He is but a shadow himself,
caught in the web of
this mortal skein.
We call him “Cat,”
We call him “Crazy”
Yet is he neither.
At some time will he ride away
to you, People of the Twilight.
His password will be the echoes of
a vesper bell, his coach, a
zephyr from the West
Forgive him, for you will
understand him no better than we
who linger on this side of
the pale.