A pause in the reminiscence about DC Comics… to tell you about a newly-published story of mine that DC inspired. Kinda.
Here’s how it happened. Back around 1976 and 1977, I was wallowing in what you might call the “ground-level” comics scene. At least that’s what Mike Friedrich was calling it when he founded Star*Reach. I wrote about how I discovered all this cool stuff at Looking Glass books in this space not too long ago.
Ariel, Star*Reach, Fiction Illustrated, I was in for all of it.
Far and away my favorite of all these various small-press indie books and comics and everything in between were the Weird Heroes anthologies from Byron Preiss.
The reason Weird Heroes hit me so hard is because it featured a bunch of writers and artists I already knew from my comics and SF reading, but doing new, wildly imaginative projects. Here was Archie Goodwin from Manhunter, Elliott Maggin from Superman and Green Arrow, Steve Englehart from Dr. Strange… but they were doing these amazingly different stories, and clearly relishing the chance to pull out all the stops. For example, I’ve always been a little irritated that Elliott Maggin was rarely given the opportunity to do something as wonderfully deranged as “SPV 166.” It was ostensibly about three female genius ex-cons recruited by the federal government to fight crime in New York from their specially-remodeled subway car, but in execution it became so much more than that…. I’m not sure Maggin’s ever quite equaled that particular gonzo tour-de-force.
Those books were hugely influential on my own ambitions to become a professional writer some day.
Fast forward a few decades, and here I am. A working pro writer. Not getting rich off it, but hell, almost nobody is. Even the Eisner and Hugo winners often have day jobs. Still, I make up stuff and people give me money for it.
Anyway. I had this story that was lost in limbo.
In its original incarnation, it was my contribution to a shared-world superhero anthology project that ended up stillborn. The call was for stories showing the darker, edgier side of superheroes, and to attempt to look at the pulp-hero genre in new ways.
Now, I have to confess, as much as I love Batman and the Shadow and the Spider, I tend to cringe a little when I hear editors talking about getting dark and edgy with superheroes. It happened in comics with Watchmen and it happened in movies with The Dark Knight— people get so excited about seeing something done in this new way that they think everything should be done in this new way. Not everything should. And when it’s done badly, you are left with the impression of a petulant nerd writer still trying to prove that it’s okay to like superhero comics to all the jocks that are jeering at him for it. (Looking at you, Zack Snyder.)
“He’s still fighting the Adam West fight,” is how my friends and I refer to it. You can always tell when someone’s fighting the Adam West fight in a modern superhero story; mostly because there will be jarringly inappropriate sex scenes, the violence is way over the top, and everyone swears like a sailor…. But it’s still your basic chase, explosion, good guy hits bad guy, the end plot.
I did my time fighting the Adam West fight, and at first I was thinking this project didn’t sound like something I’d have anything to add to. But then I noticed that in the previously published work set in the superhero universe we were to use, our source material, the chronology of events leapfrogged directly from the forties to the modern day. Very little had been written in the novels or the submissions guide about what was going on there in the sixties.
Well, hell, that was my wheelhouse. 1967 to 1980 or thereabouts: Batman, Bond, and bionics. Those were my superpeople. I’m familiar with the pulp heroes of the thirties and forties, but they aren’t baked into my DNA the way the late sixties/early seventies heroes are.
Why not do the Adam West fight for real? Let’s take that era and put a new-pulp spin on it, I thought.
This came together in my head with another story idea I’d been playing with off and on for years… Who built the Batcave? Who hollowed out the volcano for SPECTRE’s underground headquarters in You Only Live Twice? I mean, those are huge, HUGE undertakings.
Here in Seattle they dug a tunnel that takes Highway 99 underground for about twelve blocks and that project took over four years and went millions over budget.
Granted, there were no evil super-geniuses on board the 99 tunnel project to speed up its efficiency, but even so… that shit is hard to pull off. How do bad guys do it? Who’s their contractor?
Ernie Voskovec, handyman to the supervillains, was my answer to that question. The self-taught engineering genius known throughout the underworld as Dr. Fixit.
Those two ideas came together and then the thing practically wrote itself.
Unfortunately, the project I was doing it for ended up not happening. So then I had a homeless orphan story with nowhere to publish it.
I hate that. I’m kind of invested in the idea that my writing doesn’t go to waste and I’ve managed to place every piece I’ve done since 1998 somewhere and gotten paid for it (even if it’s just contributor’s copies like the one for the Wolfe Pack.)
It occurred to me that a minor rewrite would serve to file off the serial numbers of the shared-world anthology, leaving it as an original piece of my very own…. and not only that, but Airship 27 Productions had their own take on Weird Heroes. Theirs is called Mystery Men (& Women). The brief is the same as Weird Heroes— stories in the pulp-hero tradition, but starring all-new characters with a modern spin.
So I sent it in and they took it, and the book’s finally out as of last week. Mystery Men and Women Volume Six.
Featuring my very own new hero… well, kind of. He’s not really a good guy, but even as a crook he ends up doing the right thing.
I was telling Julie, “See, Ernie’s like Dr. Benton Quest if he’d had to drop out of high school to feed his family or something. Reed Richards, but working class. Played by Ernest Borgnine.”
My wife snorted. “Who are you kidding? Ernie is you. He hates rich people pushing him around and he loves his wife. He gets into this because he’s trying to get her medicine. It’s so obvious.”
Well, maybe. Your output is derived from your input. But here’s a little sample, and you can see for yourself. This is Ernie talking to a reporter from NPR about the Battle of Easter Sunday; he’s giving her the real story behind the explosive confrontation back in 1968 between Captain Dynamo and the evil mastermind Diamond Brain …and the part Ernie played in that conflict that never made the papers.
I started in the fifties, before it blew up into such a thing. Henching it.
For a while there in the fifties and sixties, it was almost like showbiz. Crime, but, y’know, performing too. Crazy costumes, theme robberies, big publicity. Lotta guys thought maybe the hero-villain thing was a fad, like a first step to TV or the movies. Never really worked for any of ‘em but people kept trying. There was that Count Von Drache guy kept showing up on talk shows like Steve Allen, claiming to be psychic… he’d predict which bank was gonna get hit next. Turns out that his arch-enemy Black Wing hitting all them banks… it was him. Same guy, different suit. There was a lot of that kind of thing back then. Nutty, but kind of funny in a weird way. Nobody took it too serious. Not even cops. They used to be friendly with the supers, some of ‘em anyway.
It wasn’t like real crime. Real criminals don’t screw around with costumes or making big pronouncements on pirate broadcasts or stuff like that. They just want money, lots of it, without a lot of drama. The real crooks in St. Jacques hated the supers but even more, they hated the super villains. If a hero-type like Liberty Jane breaks up your dockside smuggling operation, okay, that’s a couple nights’ work lost. But somebody like Preying Mantis moves in to a warehouse to start running his conquer-the-city, mad-science routine there on the same wharf your dope import operation’s on, that’s just bad for business all around. Way too much noise and attention and it just keeps going till some vigilante comes and blows it all up.
These supervillain guys, they all needed crew. I started henching in ’56….
What? ‘Henching’? That’s just what we called it. Press, they called us ‘henchmen’ and it sorta caught on, guys thought it was funny, see? We were already kind of laughing at the bosses behind their backs just because they were all so damn weird. Lizard King, he wanted his crew all in matching outfits like some kind of chorus line. Green shirts, black slacks, white ties. Really.
So we got to calling it henching. It was sorta code, like, for ‘illegal but not too serious,’ right? Most guys what got caught didn’t even do real time. They’d already had their jaw dislocated or their leg broke by Captain Good-Guy whoever; that made the bust not so clean in the first place, so prosecutors mostly wanted them to flip on their bosses. Then the case could go to trial without a lot of vigilante crap getting in the way. It was easy to cut a deal.
I got into it because my wife Debbie, she was diagnosed with what turned out to be leukemia. They know a lot more about it today but then it was just test after test and doctor after doctor, no one of them really sure what to try next, and all our savings drying up. I’d heard about this bone marrow therapy but it was thousands of dollars, there was no way I’d be able to get that much cash together. You don’t know desperate till you’re in a fix like that, watching somebody you love maybe dying and knowing you can stop it if you can just get the money. I was an electrician but not union—if I’d been union, I’d’a had insurance and none of this what you want to know about would have ever happened, probably.
I was always mechanical. Plus I had a little side business out of my garage, fixing up people’s lawn mowers and cars and whatnot. Just always been good with machines really. So naturally I was on the lookout for more work like that and a buddy of mine, Travis, hits me up in the tavern one night, says he heard I was looking for some fast money. Might not be entirely legit, he says, kind of nervous-like. But mechanical, something in my line.
Turns out it was the Midnight Midas wanted his lair done. These guys all had their secret underground whatever with the big-screen monitors and the giant supercomputers and hidden entrances and whatnot. Well, they don’t issue those along with your villain costume. Somebody’s gotta build it. And even trickier, somebody’s got to do the wiring for it. You seen pictures of those places, right? You must have if you’re looking up stuff on the old supers. Big aluminum rooms full of cool gadgets, right?
That shit is hard to wire up and Midas wanted it to work and he wanted there to be no sign of him using power off the city grid. Couple of his guys had already screwed the pooch trying to make it work and he got so goddam mad he shot the second one. Get me a real honest-to-God electrician, says Midas to his guys, and my pal Trav remembered me and my garage sideline. I was the best electrician and mechanic he knew and the job needed both.
Like I said, he pitched it to me kind of nervous—he says it would be big money, huge money, but it might be risky. Probably thinking of the guy what got shot. It didn’t matter to me. I knew Trav was into some crooked shit, small-time; I already figured it was some kind of illegal thing but I just didn’t care. Honestly by then I was so desperate I was lying awake at night wondering how hard it would be to rob a bank or something, and Debbie would get all weepy saying she wasn’t worth me gambling my freedom like that.
But she was. She was the love of my life, kid, and I knew two things—I would do anything to get her well and I would make sure anything bad I had to do would never touch her.
So I said to Trav sure, I’ll do it.
And it worked out very well for me. Turns out this was the job I was born to do.
Seriously. Supervillain lairs. Who knew? But I had a real knack for it, solving wiring problems and figuring out cooling systems for supercomputers and whatnot. Computers, you know, they’re a lot smaller now, they look like frigging adding machines. But back then they were the size of a VW bus and they ran hot, because they sucked so much power. That was another thing, hiding the power demands, because a smart cop could just read the meters in a neighborhood and figure out where Steel Spectre or whoever was headquartered.
God, I loved getting to play with all the toys. Lasers, rockets, mazes and death rays ….just any cockamamie electrical or mechanical whiz-bang shit you could think up, I probably worked on it.
You know those bastards at Kawasaki patented the Jet-Ski in ’72 but I created almost the same damn thing for the Ocean Bandit’s crew in 1959 for that shootout on Lake Mead. These guys spent money like water on the craziest goddam things. Most of ‘em, they were just nuts in weird suits, they didn’t really know what they were asking for half the time. I once got a three thousand dollar bonus for figuring out how to get a giant Jacob’s Ladder in behind the throne looking out over Devilhound’s control room. Hell, you probably don’t even know what that is. It’s two antennas that have these pulsing arcs of electricity shooting between ‘em, you know, they don’t do anything, the effect just looks cool.
That’s the kind of shit most of these guys wanted. It was all visuals with them.
But you want to hear about the Brain.
So it was about ’68, thereabouts. I’d just said so long to a nice little gig setting up the catacombs for the Electric Ladyland Mob; they wanted me to be permanent but I could see they was going to crash hard and fast. Too many drugs and hippies in that outfit to go the distance. An off-duty cop with a couple of beers in him could have put that bunch away, it wouldn’t take no super, so I just took my fee and said thank you very kindly and moved on.
I’d always been careful like that. I was getting a little bit of a rep myself by this time, some of the guys were calling me Doctor Fixit, and I’d put my pal Trav— remember him? The guy that put me on to Midas, way back when—he was on my payroll as a broker. And he comes in with this offer for what looked like another run-of-the-mill lair job. Guy had a warehouse property on the docks he wanted fitted out with camouflaged gun turrets and a submarine garage and secret entrances and the whole nine yards. I’d do one or two of those a year and that was more than enough to cover me and Debbie and even Trav’s wages. Debbie was in a home by then, she was too sick to be on her own and I knew it was just a matter of time.
But what I didn’t know—none of us that were henching for him really knew—was that Diamond Brain wasn’t just another nut in a weird suit. He was the real thing. He had powers, he was a super himself, and he was stone crazy.
So there you have it. My own Weird Hero. Bucket list achievement unlocked. I can’t tell you how much it tickles me that the back cover even has the same basic layout as Weird Heroes.
I hope you’ll check it out. Especially since Rob Davis did such an amazing job on the illustrations.
This second one I loved so much, I bought the original art for it.
I’d originally thought of this story as being one-and-done, but everybody at Airship 27 was so enthusiastic about it, and after all, the remit at Mystery Men and Women is to launch new series characters….it got me thinking and then suddenly I had the realization of how to do another one. So as you read this, I’m about a third of the way through a new story, Pimpin’ Your Supercar With Dr. Fixit. It’s the story of the one hero job Ernie ever did… and yeah, a rich asshole who pushes people around gets what’s coming to him. I won’t cop to Ernie being me, but I have to admit that seeing justice meted out to wealthy jerks is hugely therapeutic for me, even if it’s fictional.
Further deponent sayeth not.
Housekeeping Note One: Julie’s continuing to mend, and many thanks to those who’ve sent good wishes. She says love to you all. I’m writing and in the other room my wife is watching TV shows where perky people flip houses and build shelves and cook things. We are getting back into our groove. The schedule is still pretty erratic, though, so I won’t commit to being here every single week again for a little while yet.
Housekeeping Note Two: As usual, if you should happen to click on one of the many Amazon links above and you end up purchasing an item– ANY item, not necessarily the one at the link — the Junk Shop gets a referral fee. If you feel a shopping spree coming on, please consider using our gateway. It helps to defray the costs around here and then we don’t have to put up annoying ads. Thanks.