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CSBG Archive

Comic Book Legends Revealed #351

Welcome to the three hundredth and fifty-first in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Today, learn whether Robin was originally going to be a one-issue wonder! Discover the super-villain that came out of a bad review! And discover the supervillain invented by Harlan Ellison…for a T-Shirt?

Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and forty-nine.

Let’s begin!

COMIC LEGEND: DC initially gave Robin just a one-issue try-out before sales dictated that he stick around.

STATUS: False

A little over a year ago, I did a Comic Book Legends Revealed installment involving the false legend that Bob Kane was “forced” to add Robin to the Batman feature in Detective Comics against his wishes. While it was true that Robin was not his idea and it was also true that Kane preferred Batman solo, Kane adapted to the Robin idea all on his own. In fact, there is another legend that has sprung out of Kane’s usage of Robin that deals with Kane DEFENDING the addition of Robin.

About a year ago, Charlie Jane Anders did a neat piece over at IO9 about “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Batman.” A few readers have sent me the piece in the last year.

One of the items on the list was:

2) Robin was originally planned to appear in one issue, and then possibly disappear forever.
Originally, creator Bob Kane wanted to try out Robin in one issue, but Bat-editor Jack Liebowitz was against the idea of having a kid fighting gangsters, because “Batman was doing well enough by himself.” But after Detective #38 hit the stands with Robin in it, the issue sold double what the issues with just Batman had sold. So Liebowitz sheepishly agreed to keep Robin in future issues.

Anders cites Batman Unmasked: Analyzing A Cultural Icon by Will Brooker, which does, in fact, have a quote from Kane saying basically that:

But when the story appeared, it really hit: the comic book which introduced Robin (Detective Comics #38, April, 1940) sold almost double what Batman had sold as a single feature. I went to the office on Monday after we had gotten the figures and said ‘Well, I guess we had better take Robin out – right, Jack? You don’t want a kid fighting with gangsters.’ ‘Well,’ he said sheepishly, ‘Leave it in. It’s okay – we’ll let it go.’

However, while I believe that Jack Liebowitz did, indeed, object to Robin (or at least it is reasonable enough that I could believe it), there is effectively no way that they planned for Robin to just appear in Detective Comics #38.

First off, check out the ending of #38…

Seems pretty clear that Robin was now just an addition to the cast, right?

But more importantly, Robin appeared in Detective Comics #39!!

There is no way that they could have the sales data quick enough to determine to put Robin into the next issue. Heck, furthermore, he was on the COVER of Detective Comics #39!

Let me assure you, there is absolutely no way that a 1940 monthly comic book could substitute stories AND a cover after seeing how the previous issue sold.

Now, as I said before, I could believe that Liebowitz objected. I could even believe that he agreed to let Robin have a trial run on the book, but there’s no way that it was just a single issue.

Thanks to Anders for the neat piece and thanks to Will Brooker for the great Kane quote!

COMIC LEGEND: Steve Gerber based a super-villain on a newspaper writer who gave his work a bad review.

STATUS: True

Howard the Duck’s arch-rival, Doctor Bong, debuted in Howard the Duck #15….

In the great Steve Gerber The Comics Journal interview from 1978 (which The Comics Journal is allowing you good people to read for FREE right now at their site here), Gerber explained the name of the character…

The origin of the name is funny, too. I was over at Gene Simmons’s apartment — this was during the time we were working on the Kiss book — and he was showing me some of the group’s fan mail. Someone wrote them a very strange letter that said, “Come over to the house. We’ll have some good music, some good wine and some bonging.” Whatever that meant. Gene didn’t know, and neither did I. We had different assumptions about it. But it struck me as very funny, and it stuck with me, and when it was time to create this new villain, Dr. Bong was it.

Moreover, though, Gerber explained Doctor Bong’s rather…unique origins…

Then, a fellow by the name of Bob Greene, with the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote an incredibly vitriolic article about our Kiss book — prior to its publication, with no solid, factual basis for the criticism except his own negative attitude toward the group. The article was syndicated to some 100 newspapers around the country, and the mail began pouring in to Marvel from outraged people who, though they hadn’t seen the book either, were certain we were out to corrupt the moral fiber of the nation’s young. They warned us they would never buy Marvel comics again if we dared publish the book. They vowed to burn every copy that reached their neighborhood newsstands. It caused a great deal of trouble for me with Marvel. So I decided to have a little fun. Bob Greene had previously written a book called Billion-Dollar Baby, about his experiences touring and performing onstage with Alice Cooper. Knowing nothing of Greene’s past other than that, I set out to construct a character as loathsome as Greene was in my eyes at that time — a former yellow journalist who utilized the power of the press amorally to his own ends.

Amusingly enough, a relative of Greene’s eventually showed Greene the comic and Greene loved it. He and Gerber talked and Greene later wrote a positive review of Gerber’s Howard the Duck work.

Thanks to Gary Groth and Steve Gerber for the information!

COMIC LEGEND: One of DC’s Dial H for Hero superhero suggestions came courtesy of Harlan Ellison.

STATUS: True

Dial H for Hero was a comic book feature that appeared in House of Mystery during the 1960s, where young Robby Reed finds a dial with H-E-R-O on it. When he dials “hero,” he transforms into a different superhero each time.

Years later, during the early 1980s, DC decided to bring the character back. However, then-new DC publisher Jenette Kahn had a neat idea. She had worked on some magazines where the readers were compelled to send in suggestions for the magazine and their ideas would then appear in the magazine, much like how the comic book Katy Keene would contain reader designs for outfits for Keene (other similar comics did much of the same thing).

So Kahn suggested that DC do that with a comic book, and editor Len Wein decided that Dial H for Hero would be a great use of that idea.

Marv Wolfman was to be the writer. However, the book needed suggestions from readers and since the book had not yet come out, DC had to find a way to get suggestions.

So Wein and Wolfman asked fans at conventions, and also DC put out a big house ad for the concept…

The T-shirt turned out to be a major incentive for one writing icon in particular. The great Harlan Ellison asked Wolfman if he could have a “I Dialed H for Hero” T-Shirt, and Wolfman told him he could, provided he sent in a superhero or supervillain.

And, sure enough, in the first issue of their ongoing feature in Adventure Comics #479 (after a preview in Legion of Super-Heroes), one of the suggestions was by the great Ellison (and it was, indeed, a supervillain)…

Pretty hilarious.

Other notable contributors to the first Adventure Comics issue were famed comic book fan Rich Morrissey (Morrissey passed away about a decade ago. Click here to read about an interesting tribute Jim Shooter gave the well-respected fan)…

and a young Stephen De Stefano, who would years later work on a comic called Hero Hotline which a bit of a riff on the Dial H for Hero concept….

Thanks to Dewey Cassell and Marv Wolfman for the information, courtesy of Cassell’s great article about Dial H for Hero in Back Issue #32. And thanks to reader Bryan S. for suggesting I feature this one.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Thanks to the Grand Comics Database for this week’s covers! And thanks to Brandon Hanvey for the Comic Book Legends Revealed logo!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is cronb01@aol.com. And my Twitter feed is http://twitter.com/brian_cronin, so you can ask me legends there, as well!

Follow Comics Should Be Good on Twitter and on Facebook (also, feel free to share Comic Book Legends Revealed on our Facebook page!). If we hit 3,000 likes on Facebook you’ll get a bonus edition of Comic Book Legends the week after we hit 3,000 likes! So go like us on Facebook to get that extra Comic Book Legends Revealed! Not only will you get updates when new blog posts show up on both Twitter and Facebook, but you’ll get original content from me, as well!

Also, be sure to check out my website, Urban Legends Revealed, where I look into urban legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can find here, at urbanlegendsrevealed.com.

Here’s my book of Comic Book Legends (130 legends – half of them are re-worked classic legends I’ve featured on the blog and half of them are legends never published on the blog!).

The cover is by artist Mickey Duzyj. He did a great job on it…(click to enlarge)…

If you’d like to order it, you can use the following code if you’d like to send me a bit of a referral fee…

Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed

See you all next week!

56 Comments

On the cover of Detective Comics #39, did Batman really just punch that hood off the top of a building?? Dang, times were different back then, huh? :)

Captain America saw it happen and he spent five issues of Captain America Comics totally despondent over it.

Oh wow…so Dr Bong (admittedly, I only know of the character from his She-Hulk appearance during Byrne’s run) was based on Bob Greene? As a major Alice Cooper fan, I own a copy of Billion Dollar Baby and recall hearing that most of the Alice Cooper Group were just acting wild for Bob’s sake and to mess with him. (Of course, that itself may not be true, either…)

I was sure Dr. Bong was supposed to be based on Lester Bangs. The name Lester Bong certainly matches up.

Ah,. Bob Greene. Later became a Chicago Tribune columnist, wrote a horrible schmaltzy column about who everything in America had gone downhill since his teenage years in Bexley, OH (Neil Steinberg at one point was writing a hilarious Bob Watch column mocking it), and then resigned in 2002 after it came out he had had an…encounter (consensual) with a female high school student who was one of the subjects for his column. Writes his schmaltz fests for CNN.com these days.

Batman punched one off the end of a steel beam, and it looks like Robin is about to kill the other one by kicking him over the side.

But in the first issue, Batman has Robin standing by to take a picture of a murder in progress? Sure, the writing says a crazed Zucco tore Blade from Batman’s grip, but Batman had a kid waiting in advance in order to take a picture “just in case” Zucco committed murder?

You know, maybe there was something to that whole corruption of the innocent…

Is the Essential Howard the Duck still in print? If not, any other good recommendations for a good HtD collection?

Bob was a pretty good sport in the end. Steve Gerber’s writing was just that good. Those Howard pages are amazing.

I remember the Dial H for Hero series running in Adventure Comics just as I began collecting. Unfortunately, the long-running book was axed soon after and I never picked up an issue.

“Okay, you restless young squirt, I ought to whale you for jumping those men alone.”

“I bet it’ll be a corker!”

Man, I wish Bruce and Dick still talked like that. Although I loved it even more when I was misreading it as “you restless young squire.”

That last page of Detective 38 is kind of amazing. Not only does Batman basically allow someone to be murdered, but he admits to expecting it because he had Robin bring a camera to photograph it! Pretty cold, Batman. Also, Robin’s progress through the stages of grief in the last couple of panels is impressive.

I don’t see you mention it, but of course “verde” is Spanish for green.

– The Silver Fog character ended up having some legs, bizarrely. Wolfman liked the concept so much he created a successor in New Teen Titans v.2 #41. Still later, in Impulse #51, Todd Dezago and Ethan Van Sciver introduced a third version, this one an artificial being controlled by a device developed by the young son of Silver Fog II.

— About Dr. Bong: I’d always heard he was based on…hmmm, perhaps that’s better as an e-mail to Our Dread Lord and Master Cronin

— If you think Captain America cries a lot when he hears about people dying, you should have seen his reaction to the news that Lex Luthor stole forty cakes. That’s as many as four tens!

Really? Gene Simmons didn’t know what the guy meant by bonging? I’ll admit it’s a weird way of saying it but it’s not a stretch to put 2 and 2 together.

Great installement Brian. I really enjoyed it. Plus Gene Colan art? Always a plus.

Is that Carmine Infantino art too? It’s pretty good.

@kgaard
“Pretty cold, Batman.”

Not only that, but he then lightheartedly taunts Zucco with the electric chair.

I would probably read more Batman comics if he still written like this. 1930′s Batman was kind of a jerk.

Yep, Carmine Infantino.

Bonging…and the supposed lack of an idea for what that is. I love it.

“Gene didn’t know, and neither did I.”

Of course you didn’t, Steve.

It’s funny, I was just looking at those Infantino pages and thinking how great it is that so many great comic creators stuck with it for so many decades. Just the fact that I grew up reading Nova, Spider-Woman and Dial H for Hero comics in the ’70s and ’80s drawn by the guy who cocreated the Black Canary in the ’40s, Barry Allen/Flash in the ’50s and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in the ’60s is pretty freaking awesome.

I’m missing something–why would Cap in particular be upset? Yes, I know it’s a joke, but I’m not getting it.

Bad guys dying deeply upsets Cap.

Two things about that “Howard the Duck” excerpt:
1) God, that whole series was so good. I know we sing the praises of Steve Gerber “Howard” regularly on this site, but it’s never enough. It’s so good!
2) Am I the only one who noticed that college-age Dr. Bong looks exactly like “Ain’t It Cool News” head-honcho Harry Knowles? Don’t get me wrong, I know Harry would have been like ten when that comic was published, it’s just kind of coincidental and hilarious.

I think the Essential Howard the Duck is out of print( I love my copy), so is the Howard the Duck Omnibus. The omnibus includes the issues that Gerber didn’t write. The Essential has just the Gerber stuff.

That’s what makes it Essential.

Weren’t they also preparing BATMAN #1 around the same time? Several stories for Detective #38-#40 ended up in BATMAN #1 but the DETECTIVE covers weren’t changed?

Yes, Herb, they were preparing Batman #1 around the same time, which is even more indication that Robin was definitely in the plans.

for inquiring minds about Gene Simmons not knowing what ‘bonging’ meant, he stated several times over his career hasn’t ever done drugs or drink alcohol and all he really cared about was getting some vag.

There another not-so-comic book legend revealed!

One niggling point: Jack Leibowitz was the publisher and co-owner of DC, not an editor (though he could and did make policy decisions about content). The editor of Detective #38 was Whitney Ellsworth.

DeStefano also created the much-derided Zeep the Living Sponge for Dial H, who went on to appear in Hero Hotline. I’m pretty sure Kurt Busiek did one too.

One niggling point: Jack Leibowitz was the publisher and co-owner of DC, not an editor (though he could and did make policy decisions about content). The editor of Detective #38 was Whitney Ellsworth.

My guess is that Leibowitz was Kane’s contact while the titles were transitioning from Sullivan to Ellsworth.

Ryan Costello, Jr

January 27, 2012 at 2:24 pm

In what order is that last panel of Detective 38 supposed to be read? “The sensational 1940 find of Robin”? “The sensational find of 1940 Robin”? I can’t make sense of it.

The Crazed Spruce

January 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

A couple of years ago, I researched every single “Dial ‘H’ for Hero” story for a “Forgotten Heroes” proposal I was planning to send to DC on spec, and spotted the Harlan Ellison and Stephen DeStephano submissions. Got a nice chuckle out of ‘em. (I also though of sending in my own submission as a kid, when it was a backup in ‘Superboy”, but I never got around to it.)

Nowadays, if he was still alive, Steve Gerber would probably have Doctor Bong working for some sort of Fox News-type network.

“Am I the only one who noticed that college-age Dr. Bong looks exactly like “Ain’t It Cool News” head-honcho Harry Knowles? Don’t get me wrong, I know Harry would have been like ten when that comic was published, it’s just kind of coincidental and hilarious.”

Knowles and Lester simply both fit the “neckbeard” archetype to a tee, in both looks and personality.

These are interesting observations about Bats… I’m more curious about when he gave up the pipe.

“A couple of years ago, I researched every single “Dial ‘H’ for Hero” story for a “Forgotten Heroes” proposal I was planning to send to DC on spec”

That sounds amazing. I would probably rather read that than about 50 of DC’s New 52.

I’ve wanted one of those Dial H t-shirts for about 25 years. Do you think DC still have some in a cupboard somewhere? Or do you reckon Marv Wolfman individually ironed on every transfer as and when they were needed?

@Ryan – “The sensational find of 1940: Robin, The Boy Wonder” though it’s a run-on sentence and missing punctuation.

It’s been years since I’ve looked at my Howard the Duck collection, but after reading this excerpt I’m going to have to dig them out. I’d forgotten just how good Gerber could be when he was on fire.

Regarding the Dial H write in.
I read the origianal stories back in the 60′s, and I recall fans writing in suggestions back then. So I guess what’s old is new, and forgotten. I miss Robby, Susie and Grampa. Those stories were fun for a 12 year ols geek boy, skinny, blond and with glasses.

“She had worked on some magazines where the readers were compelled to send in suggestions for the magazine and their ideas would then appear in the magazine, much like how the comic book Katy Keene would contain reader designs for outfits for Keene (other similar comics did much of the same thing).”

If this is meant to be a description of Kids, the magazine created by Jenette Kahn, I’m afraid it’s inaccurate. The whole point of Kids was that all the content was created by the readers. Kids didn’t send in suggestions. Kids sent in stories, articles, poems, art, and these submissions were published. That was the entire magazine, all of it reader-created. There may have been a message from Jenette at the start of each issue welcoming readers and inviting them to submit things, or that may only have been in the early issues. I was a devoted reader and sent in drawings; none of these were published, I’m sad to say. Anyway, it was obvious there was absolutely no professional touching-up or grownup interference in the content, and if you saw an issue you’d be certain as well.

It would certainly be fair to say that Jenette’s experiences with Kids proved to her that reader submissions were a good thing and probably gave her some tips on how to make them work logistically…but apart from that, the approach taken with Dial H was very different.

Blake above makes a good point about Gene Simmons and drugs; I think everyone assumes that just because all the rock fans in back in the ’70s (and earlier, and later…) were smoking tons of weed, and (ab)using all kinds of other substances, it doesn’t necessarily mean their on-stage idols were into the same, er, stuff. Another great case in point is the late, great Frank Zappa, who by his own admission never drank anything stronger than an occasional glass of wine, and never smoked anything stronger than cigarettes (although he apparently smoked a lot of those…). I think he also insisted on the same sobriety for his band members during recording sessions and concerts. Meanwhile, I’ve been told by people who attended his concerts in the ’70s and ’80s that in the audience section you could pretty much get high inhaling all the second hand smoke.
Anyway, sorry for what turned out to be a lengthy digression…

Hell, they didn’t even get good and/or quick sales figures on comics until what, the ’80s? Certainly not in 1940. And the whole “sensational character find of 1940″ bit shows they wanted to do more with Robin.

Anyone notice in the second panel of the first Howard page, Howard’s making an oblique reference to faking orgasm? In a Code approved book, no less! My word, won’t someone think of the children?!

Seconding (or thirding) the “Gene Simmons didn’t do drugs, just wimmins” bit. Edo reminds us also that the late great FZ didn’t partake, either. What’s interesting to note as well is that apparently GERBER didn’t partake, although this makes sense — it’s more likely someone will produce great work while not under the influence (heck, even Crumb said that while LSD opened his mind, he couldn’t WORK while under the influence). Funny that Gerber’s work was probably appreciated as being out there and with it by drug users… (and as a note, I know that comment sounds a bit judgmental of drug users. deal with it :) )

I have that first new Dial H book, and I remember when I read the Ellison credit, thinking it was just some cutesy way of acknowledging that Harlan had contributed something. I didn’t realize that he had to do it to get the shirt!

I thought I read on his column at CBR that Jason Aaron had submitted characters to Dial H. Probably didn’t have any picked, though.

I take a bit of issue with the part about Hero Hotline — unless it was more prominent in issues I don’t have, there’s nothing in the Hero Hotline stuff that is similar at all to Dial H. Hero Hotline was sort of a lawyer/detective agency where you could call up and get superheroes to help you out with problems. Of any book I’ve read, I’d actually say that Top Ten is the most similar, just that Top Ten is superpowered cops, while Hero Hotline isn’t necessarily affiliated with the police. (In fact, there are cowboy-type characters paired with gawky young guys in both books too, iirc.)

I loved the 1960s Dial H. The only comic at the time that I got every issue of. Quite aside from having a teenage geek for a hero, it gave me so many heroes for the buck (or the 12 cents sigh).
I’ve read that some people assumed Ditko was taking drugs when he worked on Dr. Strange and were quite surprised to find he was fairly clean cut and didn’t work in an altered state of reality. Rereading the stories and looking at the art,I can understand their assumption though.

[...] More details at the always amusing Comic Book Legends Revealed. [...]

Doctor JunkPile

January 28, 2012 at 8:34 am

I love that panel in the Batman comic where Robin goes “I think my Mom and Dad would want me to go on fighting crime.”

He should have added “Sure, I’m a twelve-year old boy, but what’s the worst that could happen? The Joker beats me to death with a crowbar? What are the odds?”

Brian from Canada

January 28, 2012 at 10:05 am

Regarding Batman’s rush to kill, Will Brooker also asserts in Batman: Unmasked that DC had to institute a comic code of its own in the forties after complaints about Batman mowing down villains with a machine gun in his first issue.

That Superman would rescue Lois Lane and let the crooks burn in a fire of their own making doesn’t enter it. [See the Superman daily serials for proof on that.]

Either way, DC heroes stopped killing early.

That eighties take on DIAL “H” FOR HERO was great fun.

The reader submission angle gave Wolfman a ton of concepts to play with. He blew through them at an astounding rate. You would get a glimpse of something interesting and then it would be gone. Infantino was a perfect fit. He could make those amateur concepts look cool.

It would certainly be fair to say that Jenette’s experiences with Kids proved to her that reader submissions were a good thing and probably gave her some tips on how to make them work logistically…but apart from that, the approach taken with Dial H was very different.

As I understand it (and wrote about it in my one column on Comics Should Be Good: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/12/04/365-reasons-to-love-comics-338/) , Jenette Kahn went to Len Wein and Marv Wolfman suggesting doing a comic book version of Kids (the idea was they would distribute the comics in schools). I don’t know whether the Kahn’s idea was to do a full out comic that kids wrote and drew (which would have been logistically challenging), but my understanding it was certainly in the ballpark to have an interactive comic with content generated by kids.

It was Len Wein who suggested using Dial “H” For Hero and, instead of having the kids creating all facets of the comic like in Kids Magazine, using the Katy Keane approach and having kids create heroes, villains, fashions, even furniture designs.

In the event, the book never was distributed in schools (how far the proposal got to do it as a schools-only project I don’t know; certainly the early issues were written with a younger audience in mind).

While Steve & Gene could GUESS what “bonging” meant, I don’t think that term was really in common parlance.

But Bob Greene embarrassed the Chicago journalism community for years, especially with his bulldog wall-to-wall coverage of the “Baby Richard” case, about a father who had sued his estranged girlfriend for custody of their child. The case was dragged out for nearly a year, with Greene writing column after column bemoaning the terrible fate that befall the poor boy if he was ‘forcibly taken from the only home he had ever known.” And excoriating the judge in the case for not seeing the obvious truth of the case that Greene could see by not ever being in the courtroom. When the father was awarded custody of the boy, there was TV coverage of the police taking “Baby Richard” away and Bob in tears crying that “this is the worst thing that has ever happened to an innocent child!” Yeah, Bob, those newborn babies being found in Dumpsters don’t know how good they had it.

Sorry if this was already said, but I figured bonging meant “Hitting that bong,” as in “lighting that joint,” smokin that roach,” etc…

Doctor Bong and the Silver Fog should team up for one of those PSA comics

or sell their names off to an awesome band

not only can i confirm the ‘harlan/t-shirt’ story, i actually have a PHOTO somewhere in my old files of him WITH said tshirt on at a san diego con. now if only i could send attachments, which i can’t! oh well………..

So if this is #351 and the index only goes to 349…what happened to the mysteriously disappearing #350? Best get Batman on the case!

Did Harlan create the Silver Fog after listening to some Mel Torme records? Seriously, how did nobody pick up on that? And I still have my “I Dialed H for Hero” shirt 33 years later, after cutting out the form in Legion of Super Heroes 272 (and having to buy another copy, instead of xeroxing it, like a smart person would have). The submission finally appeared a year later in Adventure 486, shortly before the feature was cancelled. (My villain was the Sky Raider, if anyone was curious. I’ve been trying for years to find the Trevor Von Eeden page for years with my name on it.)
And about Dr Bong, how the hell did the Code approve a name like that? Clearly the Code was comprised of stodgy fifty year old men who thought, “well of COURSE a villain with a bell-shaped head HAS to be named Dr. BONG!”

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