"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
Much has been written, some of it even here on this weblog, on the long-standing enmity between Harlan Ellison and Gary Groth. I’m not interested in getting into all that stuff… if you really want to read about it, there’s a nice bipartisan index of the various articles taking one side or the other, put together by Christopher Day, that you can find here — personally, I found the Gauntlet article pretty compelling reading, in a can’t-look-away-from-the-trainwreck kind of way. Seriously, no one comes out of it looking good and I had the vague feeling afterwards that I never wanted to have anything to do with fan communities again. It’s THAT embarrassing. Although your mileage may vary.
But, as I said, today’s column isn’t about that. I got to wondering — how many of you remember the “insanity” that provoked the whole thing, years ago? Because I do. It led me to a lot of really cool comics, in fact. That initial characterization, “a really twisted writer,” was what got me interested in this particular creator. I was curious what would prompt a comment like that from Harlan Ellison, who was, after all, the author of several fairly twisted stories himself — I’d read “Catman” and “A Boy And His Dog,” so I doubted he’d throw around adjectives like “twisted” lightly — and Michael Fleisher certainly lived up to the billing. At least at first glance. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to characterize his books as ‘the product of a twisted sensibility,’ as Harlan Ellison did… but they definitely were different than the usual DC fare.
Back in 1980, I actually was a little surprised to find out that Michael Fleisher even wrote comics, to be honest. I’d thought of him as a historian: the guy that wrote the magnificent Batman Encyclopedia that no Bat-fan should be without.
This was actually just Volume One. The plan was to do an 8-volume set. Volume 1 covered Batman; Volume 2 was Wonder Woman; Volume 3 would be Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and The Spirit; Volume 4 was Green Lantern; Volume 5 was the Flash; Volume 6 was Superman; Volume 7 was designated for Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch; and Volume 8 would have been Dr. Fate, Hawkman, Starman and the Spectre.
The Batman and Wonder Woman volumes were published in 1976, and the Superman volume was published in 1978, finally greenlit because of the Christopher Reeve movie — it was released as The Great Superman Book, and there was nothing on the cover suggesting it was one volume of a much larger set.
I was amazed then, and am still mildly amazed today, that ANY of them got released — from a major book publisher!– because these were seriously nerdy books. And I mean SERIOUSLY nerdy. Today if you had a project like this, maybe a small-press specialty outfit like TwoMorrows might look at it — but these were big, mainstream books. I have no idea how they did, but I suspect the encyclopedia format might have hurt them, sales-wise — they looked like big coffee-table paperbacks, and they were profusely illustrated, but they were definitely reference books, very didactic and schoolmasterly. Probably the first time superheroes got that kind of treatment in print. At any rate, being a huge nerd myself, I adored them. (I gather DC’s bringing them back into print, at least the DC-related ones. More power to them.)
So it wasn’t until reading the infamous Ellison interview in The Comics Journal #53 — yeah, bought it off the stands, I’m THAT old — that I had any inkling Michael Fleisher was also writing horror comics. Pretty bad-ass ones too, from the sound of it.
I was never all that into the Spectre as a character. I’d seen the rather uninspiring Murphy Anderson version…
Note that something that should be an incredible, apocalyptic moment looks like nothing so much as the Spectre being attacked by a Mexican wrestler with a beachball. (Murphy Anderson is a favorite of mine, but this was emphatically not the strip for him.) And I somehow missed the Neal Adams issues. I sort of knew who the Spectre was from JLA-JSA crossovers, but I never read an actual Spectre story until I came across the one reprinted in Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. I thought it was kind of interesting and cool, in a quaint sort of way — I was a big Dr. Strange guy and I’ve always had a soft spot for occult heroes. But that reprint made a much bigger impression on someone else: Michael Fleisher.
Fleisher was taken with the brutal, Old Testament feel of the strip; he said that what really stuck with him was a scene where the crook looked into the Spectre’s eyes and “saw only death” there, and died himself on the spot. (The original Spectre strip was created by Jerry Siegel, whose early Superman work clearly also often falls under the heading of vengeance fantasies.) And Fleisher responded to the bleak outlook of the hero… the Spectre is “doomed to haunt crime,” superheroing’s a curse for him.
So when Fleisher got a gig at DC, he hatched a scheme with Joe Orlando to revive that version of the Spectre. No more of this Julius Schwartz “Discarnate Detective” crap — THIS Spectre was going to be the weapon of an angry God.
The art was from Jim Aparo, who did some of the best work of his career. Creepy, atmospheric, flawlessly designed yet looking very organic and raw, it came across as the perfect complement to Fleisher’s elemental, passionate scripts.
These stories are generally described as ‘controversial,’ when historians refer to them. Personally, I just thought they were cool.
Here’s the thing. Michael Fleisher was a scholar of comics, a Golden Age authority, an aficionado of horror and of horror comics… but he really wasn’t a fan. At least not in the sense we mean when we use the word. He hadn’t come up through the ranks, he hadn’t started as a letter-column regular or been on the convention circuit and, most especially, after he broke in as a writer, he had no interest in continuity or in interacting with the larger DCU. And in a climate where the biggest things happening in superhero comics were the innovative cosmic epics over at Marvel and the faux-historical tapestry guys like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart were weaving from what began as throwaway, junk culture, Fleisher was coming from a whole other place.
Specifically, he was doing EC horror stories that happened to star a DC superhero. Bad guys gleefully reveling in their badness, until the Spectre shows up to mete out hideously appropriate justice. Add the fact that the series was edited by Joe Orlando, an old EC hand himself who delighted in pushing the Comics Code right to the edge, and you got what many people found to be a weirdly disturbing series of stories.
Fleisher and Orlando could claim innocently that the Spectre hadn’t REALLY hacked a woman to bits with a meat cleaver, it was just a mannequin animated by an evil sorcerer… or that, hey, the Spectre turned the guy into a wooden log before backing him into a buzzsaw, who could object to sawing wood? But the horror — and, let’s be honest, the real power of the image — comes from the fact that these WERE people and the Spectre was killing them without remorse. Not just unrepentantly but actually — well not gleefully, exactly, but with imagination, and a certain black satisfaction. No wonder the DC faithful were appalled. Their beloved Discarnate Detective had become the Disemboweling Dynamo.
The trouble with the EC horror formula of bad people coming to a bad end, though, is that it IS a formula. Fleisher realized this early on and took steps to try and work out of it, and that’s when the strip really gets interesting.
Remember, the Spectre isn’t fighting for a cause. He didn’t volunteer. He’s a crimefighter because he’s damned to be one. Fleisher took that concept and ran with it, it became part of the horror of the strip. Jim Corrigan fell in love with a woman named Gwen Sterling, who was devastated to learn that the man she loved was, well, dead. Eventually Corrigan petitioned the Voice that created the Spectre to let him off the hook, hadn’t he earned the chance to live again? The Voice agreed, and Jim and Gwen got engaged… and then Corrigan was murdered AGAIN by thugs, and understood that being the Spectre would forever be his destiny. And that ended the series. Next issue, Aquaman was headlining the book.
Fandom breathed a sigh of relief. Personally, when I found the stories in a used-book shop in 1981, I found them extraordinarily compelling, and thought it was a pity the series had been such a short-run thing.
As it happens, there were a few more stories that never saw print. Eventually, after the Ellison lawsuit brouhaha and the attendant publicity, DC had Jim Aparo illustrate those scripts as well and put them in the final issue of Wrath of the Spectre, a 1988 miniseries that had previously reprinted the original run.
These were interesting in that they picked up a previous subplot, about a reporter who’d been convinced that there was some sort of common supernatural thread behind the unusually nasty deaths that had recently befallen so many criminals. Eventually he discovers the existence of the Spectre — though, of course, his editor doesn’t believe him — and in the final story of the series he stumbles on to the connection between the Spectre and Jim Corrigan’s former fiancee Gwendolyn Sterling. And then it really was over, but you could see that Fleisher had worked out a solution to the problem of a premise that was too formulaic — he made the continuing characters and their emotional issues so interesting that it doesn’t matter if the basic plot’s always the same. Call it the House M.D. solution.
But that was years later. In 1981, I’d just had a brief glimpse of Michael Fleisher bringing his A-game with the Spectre. Shortly thereafter, I came across a lengthy Journal interview with Fleisher where he talked about not only his approach to the Spectre, but also what he had been trying to do on Jonah Hex and Ghost Rider. That got me interested enough to look into those series as well — and it was Jonah Hex that made me a Fleisher fan.
Whether you like Hex or not, you can’t help but respect the accomplishment. Fleisher took a genre that no one else could make work at the time — every other Western book on the stands had sputtered out by the mid-70’s — and he actually built a following. Throughout the 70’s, Jonah Hex was flourishing.
And it was all Fleisher. He created an intricate biography for Jonah Hex, he put him through all kinds of horrors, he turned the genre Western on its ear. It was a tour de force. (It’s criminal that DC isn’t rushing the next Hex Showcase volume into print. All the other leadoff hitters in that series are up to volume two now — and if they get around to volume two of Hex, it’s when you’ll really start to see the good stuff. I’d be on board for the Showcase set of the entire run, if DC would ever get off the damn dime.)
The wonderful thing about Fleisher’s Jonah Hex was that it was, like the Spectre, variations on a damnation theme — but here, he really found his voice. And it was a lot easier to ring changes on the idea of an old West bounty hunter doomed to live by the gun than it was to do it for an avenging omnipotent ghost. Fleisher did all kinds of things with Hex — showed us his youth, showed us his life and loves… but always with the shadow of violence, inevitable and relentless, dragging Jonah Hex back to the gunfighter’s life.
This was decades before Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but it was that same bleak outlook, leavened with dark humor. But it was when Michael Fleisher actually dared to kill off Jonah Hex — for real, not a hoax or a dream or a parallel universe story — that we found out that there was absolutely nothing off-limits.
From the cover you’d have no idea it was anything other than a regular Jonah Hex adventure, but it ended up being the wildest one ever. It was an amazing story. Jonah, in his sixties, discovers there’s really no place for him in the burgeoning industrial America of the early 1900’s. And then he’s gunned down… and stuffed and mounted and put on display in a traveling Wild West show.
It was at once outrageous and ironic and creepy and completely out and away from what anybody else was doing at DC or Marvel. And it put a lot of fans off, though I thought then and still think today that it was a great story.
But as I said before, Michael Fleisher was not the kind of writer that came from the comics-fan point of view… or, in my opinion, ever even understood it. He tripped over this a couple of times — particularly when he was promoting his novel.
Chasing Hairy is a deeply harrowing book — mining the same vein of psychological horror and Grand Guignol bloodshed as Thomas Harris would do years later with Hannibal Lecter, but Fleisher does it with more sex. I put the ad up so you all could see how ODD it was, and what a remarkable misreading it is of what might entice the typical comics-reading demographic of the time. (One writer sniffed, “I wrote comics for Disney. Maybe I should write a book called Lesbian Cheerleaders in Bondage and have Daisy Duck advertise it.”) I wonder to this day how the hell DC and Marvel let this ad pass.
However, in prose or in comics, as far as I’m concerned, Fleisher never really matched what he did with Jonah Hex. I daresay he’d have gone on and done it for another ten years, easy, but his publisher pulled the rug out from under him. In their insane need to tie everything to the Crisis, DC canceled the book in 1985, and then put out a revamped version called Hex, where a time-displaced Jonah must fight across a dystopian future world.
This is in my opinion the single dumbest revamp/reboot anyone’s ever done for a series in mainstream comics. Jonah Hex in the old West was unique. Jonah Hex shooting at monsters with rayguns is — apart from being DUMB — indistinguishable from dozens of other 80’s books. As loyal a reader as I was, even I couldn’t stomach the revamped Hex, and apparently no one else could either.
Fleisher went on to do a few other books — he had a fairly long run on the Conan books that was okay, but nothing great. A couple of other short-lived series, Haywire, Dungeons & Dragons, and a bunch of stuff for 2000 A.D. All of the later work feels vaguely perfunctory somehow, adventures by-the-numbers — nothing that has the passion and commitment Fleisher brought to the Spectre or Hex. You get the sense that losing the lawsuit with Ellison and the Journal irreparably damaged Fleisher’s approach to doing comics, though this is sheerest speculation on my part. Nevertheless, the memorable character moments are gone from Fleisher’s later stuff on Conan and Warlord, and whatever macabre plot twists show up seem almost for show — as though Fleisher felt obligated to “do a Michael Fleisher.” And as far as I know, he left comics entirely in the 90’s.
The saddest thing is that the whole lawsuit episode was so stupid and unnecessary, and so was everything that followed; all the feuding and bad feeling spiraling out of that one moment. It’s grotesque that so many people have ended up damaged and in some cases, even had their livelihoods threatened twenty-seven years later… as a result of one hyperbolic moment when Harlan Ellison said Michael Fleisher was ‘clearly twisted.’ Especially since, if anything, instead of libeling Fleisher, Ellison and the Journal probably sold way more comics for him than he’d ever have managed just on word-of-mouth in those pre-internet days.
Certainly, they sold them to me, and I can’t have been the only one that ended up a fan of Fleisher’s Jonah Hex as a result of Harlan Ellison’s comment. I’d bet a year’s pay against a jelly doughnut that DC never would have reprinted those Spectre stories without Ellison and the Comics Journal talking about them, let alone had Jim Aparo come back and finish those unpublished Fleisher Spectre scripts. Michael Fleisher might have done better to give Ellison and Groth a thank-you note instead of suing them for two million dollars.
But that’s comics for you. Crazy business.
See you next week.
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