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Four Decades of Fridays… part one

As Brian kindly noted the other day, I did indeed have a birthday this last week. But it marked another sort of anniversary, as well.

I turned forty-six this week, which means that I’ve been… I’m not sure what the word is. Fascinated by? Obsessed with? Devoted to? Let’s just say this week makes forty years that I’ve been embroiled with comics and superheroes, one way or another.

Realizing that, it got me thinking, how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. It occurred to me that it might be fun to reach back through the years at ten-year intervals over the next few columns and see if I couldn’t create a sort of snapshot of my world and how it intersected with comics at different times throughout those forty years. I’ve written about different specific comics of these eras before, but I’ve never tried this kind of overview.

So, to start with, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the books that started the rock rolling down the hill. The stuff that launched four decades of my involvement with funnybooks, drawing, and writing that eventually led to me becoming an art teacher that specialized in the comics form, as well as the weekly gig writing these words to you.

*

Truthfully though, it didn’t really start with comic books for me. It started with television.

I was a pretty unhappy kid in the late sixties. My family was a mess — alcoholism, infidelity, crime, you name it, my folks were one-stop shopping for dysfunction. I will spare you the details — this is supposed to be a fun column about comics, after all, not a therapy session — but it does help to have a little context. Suffice it to say that it was a very solitary existence for six-year-old me. Almost from the moment I was old enough to be self-aware I was always looking for a way to get off by myself, away from the war zone. Generally that meant books or TV, because it was too hard to see other kids. In those prehistoric days before Jerry Springer, family problems were kept secret; you NEVER let on that there was any kind of trouble at home, which severely curtailed any kind of social involvement for us. Money was too tight for a lot of toys or movies or anything like that.

So television was where I got my first taste of escapist larger-than-life adventure. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild Wild West, all that stuff. I do remember that it was Mom’s suggestion that I check out this new show. I sometimes wonder if she’d still have done it if she had known in advance what it would unleash in me.

When you're six years old this is the most fucking awesome show ever. EVER. EV! ER!

The original Batman TV show has been accused of all sorts of things by comics fans over the years — “It RUINED Batman! It’s making FUN of comics! Nobody takes us SERIOUSLY because of that show!” — and so on. Reportedly Julius Schwartz and the other DC staffers were horrified at that first episode. (With some justification, I admit. I can only imagine their faces at the sight of Jill St. John telling Batman that he “shakes a mean cape” as he’s doing the Batusi. )

But for me and millions of other little kids across America, it was a revelation. It was loud and fast and simple and — I’m serious — WAY COOL. Batman and Robin had all this cool stuff, the computer and the Batmobile and even the secret door with the Batpoles. When you’re six years old, the idea of opening a secret door and going down a slide and coming out as someone so much better — a costumed crimefighter that has the job of going out and beating the crap out of bad guys… man. Think about that and how it sounds to a six-year-old kid who’s never been given much reason to believe in the justice system. That’s just intoxicating. If you are Batman and Robin, not only do the cops not hassle you, they are INVITING you to go kick the shit out of the Penguin. Who, let’s face it, clearly has it coming, and if the police aren’t going to do it, well, somebody better.

Try to ignore the silly and feel the awesome.

So sure, the Batman TV show was campy, it was silly, but who cared? Not me, I was six. All I could see was that damn, it was exciting and fun. More — the thing that gave it such an impact on me, I think, in addition to the traditional superhero power fantasy, was the idea that Batman and Robin stood for justice. Or, to put it in a six-year-old’s language, they made things fair.

I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on around me back then, but I was absolutely certain that what was going on in my real life with my mom and dad was not how it was supposed to work in families, that something was terribly wrong, and that it was really, really unfair. God knows there were enough adults in my life who deserved a good solid Bat-style KA-POW!

I bet if you gave it a little thought you could come up with a deserving Ka-POW recipient of your own.

The idea of a world where you could put on a mask and cape and go hit somebody who deserved to be hit, and presto, everything was FAIR again… I couldn’t resist that.

So there were three times a week on television where I could flee into this other, better place where the bad guys got what was coming to them. The two nights Batman was on, and Saturday morning.

The superhero fad triggered by Batman and Space Ghost had resulted, for one glorious season in 1967 and 1968, in the most adrenaline-fueled Saturday-morning lineup ever presented by the networks.

PURE FUCKING ADRENALINE... when it was on TV. Not so much in print.

Most cartoon shows were half an hour long, compiled from three roughly seven or eight-minute short features, light on characterization but chock full of hitting and blowing stuff up. Herculoids. Birdman and the Galaxy Trio. The Mighty Mightor. Space Ghost and Dino Boy. Samson and Goliath. They had me at hello.

And there was Superman. He got a cartoon show too, his first foray onto the screen since the George Reeves show had been canceled. This was the big gateway show for me, along with Batman. This was how I figured out there was more of the good stuff out there in comic books.

It wasn't just a first for me, but also for Filmation.

See, that season, the ’67-68 season that had all the other amazing stuff, was also the year that gave us the Superman/Aquaman Hour, which was my first glimpse into the DC universe at large. As I’ve said before, there were a bunch of Superman and Superboy and Aquaman short cartoons, and then there was a rotating slot that was filled, variously, by the Flash and Kid Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, the Teen Titans, and the Justice League.

Filmation. Where it all began for me.

A great many of these were written by folks that actually worked at DC — Bob Haney and George Kashdan both worked on them — and again, even though they don’t hold up that well today from a production point of view, to my seven-year-old self they were intoxicating. There was a whole world of superheroes implied, since they got together every so often in the Titans and the League. You could tell there was more to be told. And these were the cartoons that were HARD to see, they were hardly ever on in the rotation compared to Superman and Aquaman. The other Filmation DCU shorts had that added intriguing cachet of scarcity.

So these were the characters that caught my eye when I saw my first comics spinner rack. When we’d go down to the Village Drug, sometimes my mother would give me a quarter. Generally it went for candy. But I was about to find something a lot more addictive.

This is the one that started the rock rolling down the hill.

That book, Flash #178, was my first glimpse into the real DC universe. The one in print. And it was even bigger than I’d imagined.

This was the first comic I ever owned and I read it to tatters. This was the one that started it all. Because it was BETTER than the cartoons. For one thing, it was a reading experience, so it was more participatory, and thus more immersive than just watching TV… but at the same time, it was visual, so it was easier than reading a book. I was a good reader at the age of seven, but even so, pictures helped. But really what sold it to me was the sheer breadth of imagination on display. In eighty pages you got alien invasions, time travel, parallel worlds, and of course, lots of general mayhem. It was a headlong dive into the wonderful weirdness of classic DC Silver Age SF, where odd little alien dudes landed in the middle of town every other week, annoying people: “Good Gosh! That strange ray the alien is using is making everything fall UPWARDS!”

I did try the print equivalent of my beloved Batman, as well, but believe it or not, the books often paled in comparison to what I was getting on TV.

Kind of plodding next to the TV show.

The covers were always promising, but the insides, usually by Gardner Fox and Joe Giella, were just too dull. After the general freakiness on display in the Flash book, this was definitely a let-down. Too bookish. Late 60’s Batman comics were bloodless gimmick stories or whodunits, and the fisticuffs never seemed to carry the feeling of joyous release that they conveyed on television. Lots of science-class explaining, not very much Ka-Pow!

I had better luck with the other superhero books… I did quite like Superboy. I think that was because it looked like the Filmation cartoons but it was so much weirder. (My affection for Superboy, at least the original conception of “Superman when he was a boy,” has carried through to this day; it’s why I still catch myself tuning in to Smallville from time to time.)

Turns out this one was even nuttier than I remembered.

But mostly, I stayed with the Giants; when you only have a quarter, you have to make it count. I always could find a Giant I hadn’t read. I think the next one I got after the Flash was a Superman. This one caught my eye because I had never heard of Supergirl. I suppose you could call this my research phase of comics-buying… this was all new to me and I was soaking up DC lore like a sponge.

Behold the awesome Weisinger weirdness.

This particular Giant, like most of DC’s Giant reprint books, was a theme issue. It was pretty weird, even for DC in 1968. What really freaked me out was the “Imaginary Story” at the end, where young Kal-El is found not by the Kents but by some European would-be despot and tricked into a career as a weapon of mass destruction. That story ended somehow with Superboy getting drained of his powers (I think this was the first Gold Kryptonite story, but I’m not sure) and forced to live out his life in Smallville, adopted by kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent. “HOW IRONIC!” was a caption you saw a lot during the Weisinger era, and that was my first brush with it.

I still liked it, though, and was totally up for the next Giant I came across.

I'm pretty sure this was my first actual Superman comic.

This was just a heaping helping of awesome. First Brainiac. First Phantom Zone. First Metallo. Another one I read to tatters.

I didn’t much care for the regular book, but I hardly ever missed a Batman Giant. Although they weren’t as much fun as the show, these older stories did have more of the let’s-GO! adventure vibe I was looking for. I remember this one was the only bright spot of an otherwise miserable family vacation that year.

The reprints kicked ass though.

I was starting to branch out a little. Marvel was doing Giants too, and I knew those cartoons — that was the year ABC put on the Fantastic Four from Hanna-Barbera, as well as the original Spider-Man cartoon with the infamous theme song. I liked Spider-Man so I took a chance on this one.

My first-ever Spider-Man also introduced me to the Mighty Thor, as it happens.

Marvel Tales, when it started, was a hell of a package. The headliner was always Spider-Man but there were lots of cool backup strips too, This featured the Torch in a fun solo adventure — I believe this was my first encounter with the Puppet Master — and also introduced me to the Mighty Thor, who was facing off against the Cobra and Mister Hyde. Best of all, there was no dreaded “To Be Continued,” something that often put me off buying Marvel books.

I didn’t see the Fantastic Four cartoon that often when it originally aired — I think it came on at seven a.m. or some ungodly hour like that, and I usually slept through it — but I had seen the one with the Mole Man, which prompted me to blow my precious quarter on this book when I saw it.

Jesus, though, THIS was the mother lode. Check out the lineup.

This was actually a much cooler package even than Marvel Tales. What an awesome comic book this was. It just about fried my little eyeballs. In addition to the FF’s battle with the Mole Man, there was also Iron Man, a character new to me but that I instantly liked, and Dr. Strange versus Baron Mordo. There was even a little short feature called “Tales of the Watcher,” and I remembered him from the Hanna-Barbera FF. The trouble was that goddamn “continued” that concluded a couple of the stories… that was always an enormous pain in the ass, as far as I was concerned. That meant that somehow I’d have to get Mom down to the drugstore AGAIN and persuade her to part with a quarter AGAIN. This was by no means a sure thing.

Still, I managed to succeed often enough that I was getting a nice little pile of comics. The ones I ended up with the most often were Marvel Tales and the Superman Giants.

This one I read to tatters, I adored it so.

I think it was the mythology. Marvel had the integrated universe, and the Weisinger Superman had all that carefully-constructed Kryptonian lore. This one in particular rocked my socks because it reprinted “The Sons of Superman.” To this day this story is possibly my favorite old-school Weisinger Imaginary Story ever… the tale of Superman’s two sons, Jor -El who’s super, and Kal who’s not, was a rollicking adventure that ranged across the known universe, the Phantom Zone, and included the boys doing a stint as Nightwing and Flamebird in the bottle city of Kandor.

It was also a dead-on allegory for the athletes vs. nerds conflict that I saw playing out in front of me at school every day. Except in the comic, the nerd WON, his bookworm research saves Superman and the whole goddamn WORLD, and the jock actually APOLOGIZED. In my world, you couldn’t get much more imaginary than that.

In those days, reading comics was a secret vice in my part of the country. I had learned to keep them at home because if I took them to school some stupid jock bully would take it away and rip it up. These were the days before collectors and comics shops, there was no replacing anything … and anyway, I was eight, how would I have ever gotten in touch with a dealer? Maybe in New York or Los Angeles you could find a dealer who sold old comics, but not in my neck of the woods, not then. They were considered junk, denounced as such and the subject of derision from parents, teachers, classmates, and well, everyone I knew, really.

By 1970 I was half-convinced they were right. I was getting old enough to realize that a lot of the Batman TV show stuff was a joke — there was the vague sense, especially in the last season, that I was being laughed at. The comics themselves were starting to look a little corny. Maybe it was time to give up the things. In fact, I almost had.

And then this happened.

This was so awesome it almost set my hair on fire.

The comics themselves changed. I had sort of known that Batman was suddenly a lot scarier looking with a longer cape and stuff, but this was my first experience with that. It was also my first look at the new 70’s DC. The Robin story in the back (it was one of those goddamn ‘continued’ things) brought me back next month, and I was sold.

This new, bad-assed Batman I could really get behind, though.

Once again, it was Batman who provided the gateway. I was about to embark on a whole NEW adventure. I was growing up, and incredibly, it looked like superhero comics would grow up with me.

…But we’ll talk more about that next week, when I get to part two. See you then.

22 Comments

Ahhhhh! Too be continued! I %^&%ing HATE those!

…First off, Happy Hatching Day! Mine’s coming in about two weeks as well, so you’re only about two weeks older than me. I know where you’re coming from on the age bit.

…And yes, that *was* one single action-filled season for kidvid. Too bad complete and utter power-tripping CUNTS like Peggy Charren and her anal-retentive bunch of housewives at ACT had to go and ruin cartoons for everyone. Who cares if they were too poor/stingy/retarded to buy their kids all the neat toys that were advertised in between the show segments? That was *their* problem, and if they couldn’t handle it they should have simply shut off the TV rather than ruin *our* fun. One day I will get to meet Charren face-to-face, and after I chew her ass out for her actions, I may just *bitchslap* her face. She clearly has it coming.

…Your observations on the Bat-books not necessarily matching the TV show were dead-on, and that was the reason I quit buying them *after* the show premiered. Except for the 80-Page Giants that reprinted the old Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson “Goofy Batman” with the special costumes and giant typewriters, most of that early “Bat-Signal Bat-Symbol” era was the sort of uninteresting drek that the critics were claiming the TV show was guilty of promoting! Until Neal & Denny took the book in the new serious direction, I didn’t touch a Bat-Book for almost half a decade!

…The same can be said for the Spider-Wimp TV series. I watched the show, but except for one annual I didn’t touch any of the books for decades! In fact, I think between ASM Annual #5 and ASM #200, I don’t recall picking up and reading one single issue of Peter’s lame-assed stories, much less wasting the spare change.

…As for Wild, Wild West I never did enjoy that show until its last season. Now I know the reason: it was produced by the infamous Fred Freiberger, whose lack of any comprehension as to how to make fantasy genre work properly also destroyed Star Trek and Space: 1999. It was in that last WWW season or two where Fred had been fired, although it was too late to save the show.

…Anyway, happy whatever day. Don’t do anything I’d normally do on my own b-day – jury duty, viral pneumonia, gall bladder removal – or you’ll regret it the next year.

That was fun! Looking forward to part 2.

Greg, nice writeup and an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Though I really have to compliment you on the funny comments that come up when you hold the mouse over each picture. LOL.

Neat stuff. It struck me how important licensing is to attracting kids. I learned much more about the Marvel universe through the trading cards and the giant bin of Marvel toys my buddy had than from any comics from that time (1991-92, when I was 6-7). I’m sure I followed Marvel much more than DC because I had about 100 Marvel cards and 10 DC ones.

Ahhhhh! Too be continued! I %^&%ing HATE those!

Ha! Walked right into that one, didn’t I?

Incidentally, I was going to mention that it amazes me how much of this stuff has become AVAILABLE again this last year. “The Sons of Superman” is in the DC Imaginary Stories collection. Everything that was ever in Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest has now been collected in the Essential books, except for the “Tales of the Watcher” short stories. And though I don’t think they’ve hit the specific stories yet, the DC Showcases are going to catch up with the Flash comics that were in my first Giant with volume 2, and the Golden Age Flash story reprinted in that same Giant is in one of the Crisis on Multiple Earths collections — I think it’s Team-Ups volume one but I can’t swear to it. The recent DC “Kandor” and “Batcave” theme trade paperbacks also are hitting a lot of the classics I first saw in an 80-page Giant. Even those “Teen Wonder” Robin solo strips I mentioned towards the end — more on those next week — are getting the Showcase treatment in January, according to Amazon.

Even the cartoons are coming out on DVD. Warner finally put out the Filmation Superman and Aquaman shorts, and I have to assume they’ll get to Superboy and the DCU shorts as well, if only to get ahead of the bootleggers. And you can also get Space Ghost, the original Birdman, all that great old Hanna-Barbera adventure stuff.

And my earliest favorite shows like Voyage and the Wild Wild West are out now. Sadly, the Adam West Batman is not, though there’s a nice DVD issue of the 1966 movie. I really want the first season though. That’s the one to get. After that they got a little too caught up in trying to live up to the ‘camp sensation!’ press they were getting. But that first season there was actual adventure and jeopardy along with the jokes.

Great column Greg, really looking forward to reading part 2.

Greg Hatcher said:
“Incidentally, I was going to mention that it amazes me how much of this stuff has become AVAILABLE again this last year.”

Never underestimate the power of nostalgia and the fact that all of us who grew up on those comics and cartoons now have the disposable income to buy the reprints and DVD box sets. :)

Very nicely done, with lots of personal resonance for me, who turned 48 2 months ago. I remember watching that first Batman on a school night in first grade, & the 80-Page Giants were what really hooked me a couple of years after that. Some 35 years later, having given up comics for (I thought) good as a college sophomore in late ’78 & sold off my good-sized collection in the summer of ’81, what ultimately lured me back in was the decision to collect all the Giants & Annuals … Madness!

The Mighty Mightor

November 19, 2007 at 4:30 am

Hey there! I just thought I’d drop you a line to say how pleased I am that someone remembers my TV show. Boy, we had some fun shooting that thing. The folks I worked with on that show were amongst the nicest people I ever met in showbiz. Well, except for Alex Toth. Mr Toth and I had several disagreements during the shooting of the show and I’ve never hidden my disdain for his storytelling approach. He was very dismissive of me whenever I tried to contribute story ideas to the show, insisting that ‘there was no room for that kind of thing on children’s television’. It’s my belief that his conservative method of storytelling led to the shows premature demise and I still contend that ‘The Mighty Rape-or’ could have been a great episode.
And, hey, listen… all that stuff with your family… I… I wish I coulda been there for ya, kid… but, I… I was going through some problems of my own at the time… I, mean the show had just been cancelled and I… well, it was the sixties, y’know? I don’t think I need say more.
Anyway, you youngsters hang loose now, y’hear? It’s great to know that an old caveman like me hasn’t been forgotten!

Your friend,

The Mighty Mightor!

I’m just a bit older than you so I totally remember the incredible power and drama of the Batman TV show, and the wonder of Saturday mornings, especially from 1966 to 68 (it was TWO glorious seasons of Saturday morning super-heroes, not one) Like you, Greg, I had family crap that led to a pretty solitary existence, and the TV superheroes were the greatest of escapes.

I was five when Batman began, and I remember that on the day it first started I was really upset, tantruming and crying about something or other, grumbling and pouting all through dinner, and my mom said that there was a special show coming on, starting tonight, that she just KNEW I would love, and I that would forget all about the something or other, whatever it was.

In my memory now I was basically something like a five-year-old Stewie from Family Guy. I was absolutely outraged that she was so crass as to think that a bloody television show could distract my righteous fury, that she even knew ANYTHING about what sort of new show I would like anyway, and that she would not be manipulating her way out of this issue so easily, and that…that… that music, that MUSIC, so intoxicating, what the deuce! What sort of bloody car is THAT??? Look that man is wearing a mask, and oh my lord this other fellow actually trying to SMASH him, and WHAT WAS THAT? What does K-A-P-O-W spell, answer quickly, vile woman!
And I must have cookies! Cookies now, I say, and milk!

And that was that.

I remember getting so angry when adults would laugh at the show’s puns, jokes and campiness. Did they not understand??? This was clearly no laughing matter!
I saw absolutely nothing funny about that giant freaking clam.
More cookies, quickly, during the commercial!

I too was immediately taken with the Batman t.v. show. However, my mother was a whack-job and wouldn’t allow me to watch it when it was in syndication as she thought the show was sadistic and would give me ideas. So the show had this illicit allure for me growing up as any episodes I caught were done so totally on the sly. The Batman comics were fine for me to read. No objection to that. Same with the Filmation cartoon. It was just the live action show she objected to. Yeah…. I know. It makes TOTAL sense.

She also almost threw my brother out of the house for going to see the Exorcist. He was 17 at the time. My attraction to comics came from his stack of Ghosts, House of Mystery, and Tales of the Unexpected that he had hidden on the top shelf of our storage closet, next to where our Halloween decorations were kept. I remember there was a ladder that I had to use to climb up to them and all this too was done on the sly. My mother would freak out and blow a gasket if she suspected I had been looking at my brother’s collection of DC horror comics thinking it was warping my little mind and I think she eventually destroyed them. No wonder comics became my outlet for rebellion.

I also wasn’t allowed to watch Star Trek until I had stayed the night over at a friends house and saw Star Wars ( which she wasn’t pleased about) but she decided that since I handled Star Wars fine then I was old enough for Trek. Again, I had already been catching that on the sly for several years.

Making all these things verbotten only increased their lure for me. If I had unfettered access to all of these I would have most likely not been the rabid fan I am today. Want to make someone really interested in a book or film? Tell them they aren’t allowed access to it.

Yeah ’66 through ’68…what atime for heroes and television. Just as you state from the beginnings of Batman and The Wild Wild West to the thrill of getting up on those Saturday mornings and knowing that Superman, Aquaman, the FF or Spiderman was coming up was something I looked forward to all week long.

One of the first comics I remember getting was Batman 80 Page Giant number 98 with the story where Batman captured Joe Chill! The 80 pagers were the primes of DC’s Silver Age for me, and still are.

I just turned 46, and your narrative of how you were drawn to this world of gaudy costumes tracks closely to my own. I look forward to part two.

Turned 46 in September so this is all very resonant – especially the impact of the Batman show and the magic of DC’s Giants and Marvel’s reprint titles (the first comic I read for myself was Marvel Collectors Item Classics 5). In the UK they were especially appealing as they weren’t twice the price of a standard mag, but only 50% more – what an incentive!

[…] Last week, in Part One, I talked a little bit about what the comics and super-hero landscape looked like when I discovered them at the age of six. This week, I want to jump forward ten years, to what the world of comics looked like to me when I was sixteen. […]

[…] Part one is here; part two is here. Now let’s leap forward another ten years… to a really glorious year for comics. And a pretty good one for me, in retrospect, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. […]

[…] Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Now our last decade-long leap, to the time when comics actually became my job. […]

[…] can tell you exactly what mine were. I’ve spoken before of how TV’s version of the DC characters, and Batman in particular, were a gateway to the […]

[…] not really sure where it starts. You could say it started with my discovery of the television Batman in 1966, or perhaps with my discovery of the O’Neil-Adams version of Batman in the early 70’s. […]

[…] don’t. As I have documented many, many times — here and here are the most prominent — the DC characters were my gateway to comics and […]

I remember hearing that the reason why Batman went “campy” was because it was deemed too violent for kids at the time. So they made it more tongue and cheek and it became more acceptable for parents to have their kids watch it. I am in your age range and I, like you and every other kid, loved the show.

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