Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

New faces of the Silver Age (not that I ever saw their faces back then).

In 1965 and 1966, change was in the air. New names were writing the comics I liked, as well as the books I didn’t care about. The new generation of comics creators was on the way.

Not that I was aware of this at the time. While I was way more into the writing side than the art, I can’t say I cared who was doing the writing, only whether the story was good or bad. The idea that specific writers turned out specific types of stories, or that some individuals consistently turned out better stories than others simply wasn’t in my consciousness. I was, after all, eight in ’66.

Discovering the same names as part of my Silver Age reread is a different kettle of fish. When I read that Roy Thomas or Cary Bates did the writing my reaction is shaped by their future work. Cary Bates was, among other things, the Flash writer from the early 1970s through the Crisi; Roy Thomas, of course, tried his hand at everything coming out of Marvel at one point or another. Seeing their early work is a bigger deal now.Cary Bates began by submitting cover sketches to Mort Weisinger, then got to plot World’s Finest #153, an imaginary story where Bruce Wayne becomes Batman to avenge Superboy supposedly murdering his father. The story, written by Edmond Hamilton (I don’t know how much of Bates’ idea was a detailed plot) hinges on an unconvincing misunderstanding. It would be Bates’ last story until 1967 but he’d be writing steadily for years after that. If nothing else, look for the back issues of his amazing twelve-issue series Silverblade or his post-Crisis take on Captain Atom.As Thomas recounts in The Krypton Companion, he started out in comics with two weeks under the notoriously vitriolic Mort Weisinger. During that time he contributed the core idea for “The Dragon Delinquent” (Jimmy infiltrates a bike gang); the more bizarre details such as the hunchbacked gang leader Quasimodo came from Weisinger or writer Leo Dorfman.

As Thomas describes it, working for Weisinger was hellish. When Stan Lee called to ask if Thomas was still interested in a Marvel job, the kid’s reaction mixed relief with terror he might be working for less — he couldn’t survive a pay cut but he’d take it to get away from Weisinger (relax, his pay was fine).

Like a lot of new Marvel writers, Thomas broke in with non-superhero stuff. His first published story was for Modeling With Millie or, as the French call her on the cover, “Mademoiselle Le Millie.” He also wrote for Patsy and Hedy, Kid Colt, Outlaw and, over at Charlton, the superheroic Blue Beetle and Son of Vulcan.

Apparently Stan was satisfied with Thomas’ work because in April 1966 Roy got to write both a Dr. Strange story (plotted by Steve Ditko) and Sgt. Fury. He’s definitely not up to scratch yet — Sgt. Fury #29 blows a good cliffhanger in a lackluster part two — but he’d soon be writing X-Men, Avengers and more. One thing about comics, the sheer number of stories means that if you want to improve your craft you’ll have constant opportunities to do so. Thomas did, though I know his style isn’t to all tastes.

Thomas’s fondness for retcons and exploring Marvel’s past is part of what made the new generation different. Stan Lee, Edmond Hamilton and Jack Kirby, to name three older-generation storytellers, grew up before comic books were a thing; Thomas’ childhood had been filled with comics. His fondness for the Golden Age and his fannish fondness for resolving loose ends and contradictions would shape his career.

Similarly, Denny O’Neil  debuted in ’66 with a Patsy and Hedy story. He’d keep writing for Patsy and Millie into ’67, as well as working on Doctor Strange, some of Marvel’s Western heroes and some Charlton work, eventually getting his first DC gig scripting Beware the Creeper #1.A couple of years later, his work with Neal Adams on Batman would ensure his comic-book immortality.

Finally, in May of 1966, Jim Shooter broke into comics with a Supergirl story, “Brainiac’s Blitz,” and a Legion of Superheroes story introducing Karate Kid, Ferro Lad and Princess Projectra. That’s a higher-profile start than O’Neil or Thomas got, and Shooter delivered, going on to become the Legion writer of the Silver Age. I think his skills in those days were better than Bates, O’Neil or Thomas, though I’m not sure how I’d weigh their lifetime contributions against each other.

I’m also not sure how much their individual talents and choices affected the industry. Obviously DC and Marvel would have needed new blood eventually; if it wasn’t these guys in ’66, it would be someone else that year or a year or two later. O’Neil gets credit for bringing back a darker Batman; would Neal Adams have pushed things that way with Frank Robbins? If not for Roy Thomas’ golden age enthusiasm, we probably wouldn’t have had an Invaders or an All-Star Squadron but much as I like both books, I don’t think not having them would alter the comics landscape drastically. I’d love to hear y’all’s opinions on the quartet’s influence in the comments.

#SFWApro. Covers by Curt Swan, Gene Colan, Swan, Stan Goldberg, Goldberg again and Swan again. Credits for various creators courtesy of Mike’s Amazing World.

One comment

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Well, Shooter and Thomas definitely had an immense influence on comics going forward, both as writers and editors. O’Neil, in collaboration with Adams on both Batman and Green Lantern, also had a considerable influence on the way superhero comics were done from that point forward. I don’t think Bates had as much of an impact as the other three, although I think he’s a damn good writer.

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