Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Timelessness and relevance

I don’t remember what prompted it but a couple of years back my friend Ross Bagby and I got into a discussion of how a lot of 20th century fiction came off, intentionally or not, as timeless.

Consider Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. I discovered them in 1968 or 1969 when my Aunt May stayed over with a copy of Case of the Duplicate Daughter in her suitcase. I read it and presto, hooked on the series, which I continued to read avidly until I went to college in 1976 (I still read them after that, but not as consistently). I know now that Perry’s literary career began in the 1930s and that many of the books I read — Case of the Restless Redhead, Case of the Green-Eyed Sister, Case of the Terrified Typist — dated back to the 1950s. Nothing made my younger self think they came from that far in the past.
As a kid I was also a fan of Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, a humorous series about ten and 11-year-old boys at a small prep school. I imagined Jennings as my contemporary, slightly older but a child of my generation. Nothing in the books suggested otherwise. It wasn’t until TYG bought me an omnibus of the first four novels as a Christmas gift that I discovered they were a product of the 1950s. Jennings Follows a Clue came out in 1951; Jennings and his sidekick Darbyshire were 10, which made them 17 years older than me. It didn’t show.

The point Ross made was that by the late 1960s, many such timeless series suddenly became time-bound. From what I’ve read about the later Jennings books (after I left England I no longer followed the series), the early 1970s dragged him out of school and into the contemporary world. Superboy, who’d existed in a vaguely pre-WW II setting for a long time, adopted a sliding time-scale in 1971 that put Clark’s teenage adventures 15 years behind the current year of Superman.

Other series faded away around the same time. The steady stream of Tarzan films through the decades became an irregular trickle. The Dr. Mabuse series in Germany ran out of steam (though various films would carry on the name off and on in the coming years). British hero Bulldog Drummond gave up the ghost in 1969.

In comics, Blackhawk, which had soldiered on with minimal change since the 1950s, bit the dust after the infamously disastrous attempt to become contemporary superheroes. Lois Lane, drawn for years like this —— got a fashion update.

(For the record, I’m not arguing all of this stems from a common cause but it is remarkable what a transition point/extinction event this period was).

In comics, the late 1960s (the point I’ve reached in my Silver Age reread) were also the point “relevance” became a buzzword. When Americans were protesting a war and demanding social change, why were comics wasting time on superheroes fighting supervillains? Why not tackle the real evils of our time — Vietnam, Nixon, racism, pollution! In the words of later Green Lantern/Green Arrow story, even if superheroes save the world, what have they done for the black folks lately?

Comics have, as they say, always been political. Whether punching Hitler ——punching commies like the Crusher—
— or teaching man that thy name is — brother!Nevertheless, the “relevant” era felt different to me. More earnest, more heavy-handed, more self-conscious about being political. Willing to sacrifice entertainment value in favor of preaching, like Wonder Woman battling to expose fashion-industry sweatshops.By mid-1968, the first stirrings are obvious. In Green Lantern #61, for instance, Mike Friedrich and Gil Kane give us “Thoroughly Modern Mayhem.” Alan Scott begins feeling his crimefighting efforts are futile—

—so he uses his ring to erase evil from the world. That doesn’t work of course, as we all have evil inside us. Alan feels even more dispirited after his failure until Hal sets him straight with an inspiring speech.

Friedrich would do a lot more “relevant” storytelling in the years to come. I’m not looking forward to wading through it.

Another example of the trend to relevance was DC’s Hawk and Dove, who debuted in ’68 in Showcase #75, courtesy of plotter/artist Steve Ditko and scripter Steve Skeates. I looked at that first issue last month and realized I’d never really read it, just skimmed it on the stands when it came out. It hadn’t interested me much as a kid; now I find it an interesting failure.

Skeates has said Ditko and Giordano, both older and more conservative he, were convinced Don Hall, pacifist and intellectual couldn’t be anything but a wimp. Whenever Skeates tried to change that, he got outvoted. I can see that attitude in the first issue, starting with the cover.

Hawk is tough. Dove is tamed. Hawk snarls at us. Dove hangs his head in shame. Then we get to the story.While it’s obvious Vietnam is the subject under discussion, there’s no mention of it in the book or on the signs. Did they decide to be more cautious than Friedrich was in that Green Lantern panel? I also notice that although the Hall brothers talk about joining protests, neither brother picks up a sign and participates.

Vietnam was still a hot topic when I arrived in the US in 1969. Hank’s “force is the only thing they understand” is a familiar right-wing argument from the era. Don, on the other hand, doesn’t bring up any of the issues I remember left-wingers raising, such as the relentless bombing of North Vietnam, the body counts, etc. He’s just a softie parroting appeasement cliches — be nice to our enemies, they’ll be nice back. In fairness, their father points out this may be Don’s youth and inexperience talking.Eventually a crook with a score to settle puts Judge Hall in hospital, then sends a hit team to take him out. Hank and Don can’t do anything to stop it until a mysterious voice makes them more powerful, more invincible than ever before. Dove isn’t down with the change, though.At the climax of the story Dove can barely bring himself to fight, even to save his father’s life.

Nor does he fancy continuing as a superhero.

In case you’re wondering what got Don so upset, it’s his father’s shock and outrage that those costumed kids saved his life.

Dude, fighting to stop an attempted murder isn’t vigilante tactics, nor does it violate due process of law. At this point, that’s the only thing Judge Hall has seen them do. The judge is nominally the sensible centrist; he doesn’t sound sensible here. In the first issue of Hawk and Dove he starts channeling Mr. A and making windbag speeches about how if you can’t stand the time, don’t do the crime, which shocks everyone as much as Jack Ryder’s big mouth.

#1 also confirms Don’s attitude from Showcase: his big issue with becoming Dove isn’t sing violence but becoming a “social outcast.” That doesn’t make sense even from the “pacificst=wimp” perspective. I’m guessing the point is that as a liberal, Don’s default setting is supposed to be “sheeple” where his father never flinches when his supposedly shocking statements generate a firestorm of controversy (it’s the kind of thing for which Ross and I used to hand out the Oliver Queen Award).

As Omar Karindu said in the comments to my Creeper piece, Ditko’s work is best when his political opinions aren’t quite so in-your-face.

#SFWApro. Hawk and Dove material by Ditko; other covers top to bottom by Dick Dillin, Kurt Schaffenburger, Curt Swan, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Alan Brennert did about the only Hawk & Dove story I liked, until Karl Kesel got ahold of them, in the late 80s. It was in Brave & The Bold and they are adults, with Don as a social worker and Hank as a corporate type. Don is stuck in the 60s, with old posters and slogans on the wall and in a perpetual funk that he seems to accomplish little and all of the protests didn’t fix things. Hank is similarly stuck and angry all the time. They eventually come to find that they each have to learn something from the other, to become whole. Leaving that part aside, what I really liked was how he made Dove a fighter, using soft martial arts, like Aikido, rather than aggressive fighting; using an enemy’s strength against itself, which is the essence of passive resistance. You don’t have to physically battle to stop an enemy, as Gandhi and King showed. You just refuse to back down and refuse to become violent, which leaves the other side as the clear aggressor, turning the public against them. It was the pair written by someone who was willing to show the positive and negative of both sides, not just make one the correct choice.

    Pretty much all of Brennert’s comic work is golden.

    1. Agreed. The Brennert story was wonderful, with little touches like the Halls realizing their names no longer mean anything to Kids These Days.
      Issue #1 of Hawk and Dove has Don trying to fight by similar means but it doesn’t quite come off.

    2. Le Messor

      You don’t have to physically battle to stop an enemy, as Gandhi and King showed.

      I’m reminded of Babylon 5, where Byron (I think) was being attacked. He gets his attacker to hit him again and again, and points out that if the first five punches didn’t make his attacker feel better, the next five won’t either.
      I’ve always held it up as showing the strong side of ‘turn the other cheek’.

      It was the pair written by someone who was willing to show the positive and negative of both sides, not just make one the correct choice.

      That’s the nuance that needs to be shown. You don’t want to say Nazis had a point, of course – but you probably *need* to show why they got the popular vote.

    3. Omar Karindu

      It’s notable that the Kesels were only able to make Hawk and Dove work by partially depoliticizing them, and instead tying them in to the Order vs. Chaos war subplot running through the late 1980s and early 1990s DC comics (which eventually fizzled out).

      As far as the original “relevant” concept for Hawk and Dove, Alan Brennert’s comics are truly phenomenal. I find it interesting that most of his comics work involves closure: he resolves the Hawk and Dove characters, conflicts, and setting by positioning them in terms of what has changed, culturally and socially. His Creeper story from The Brave and the Bold was about bringing some of the themes to a head as well.

      And, of course, his Batman and Supergirl stories are quite explicitly about various forms of closure: the Batman and Catwoman moving past their efforts to escape themselves and each other, the Earth-2 Batman’s surviving family and his early archfoe Hugo Strange letting go in different ways, and Supergirl offering the solace of memory both in-story and metafictionally.

      I think one of the big problems with in-the-moment “relevant” storytelling in superhero comics is that it can’t offer credible closure on the issues and conflicts it brings up. Either the real-world issue has to be shown unresolved at the end because it’s still ongoing, or the story has to resort to turning someone or something into a reductive, unrealistic straw man, an easy target to shouted down or (most often) beaten up. It’s as if the worst tendencies of the infinitely long serial and the clumsy sloganeering of politics find each other.

      1. I think the Order/Chaos worked for them though. You can make a case for order and chaos balancing each other; the later take that they’re War and Peace doesn’t work so well (war is only good in that it can eventually get us to peace).

      2. Excellent point about closure in Brennert’s work. His Black Canary story in Secret Origins also has a lot of that with Young Dinah working through her relationship with her mother.
        And of course Bruce in Detective #500 getting to save his parents’ counterparts.

  2. Le Messor

    I recently saw a YouTube discussion of The Prisoner, where he said it managed to be both very much of its time, and way ahead of its time at the same… time.

    Your talk about your timeless / of their time books and comics reminded me of that.

      1. Le Messor

        I’ve been working on my own viewing order. I was thinking of posting it here if I get it right – but that’s gonna take another viewing, and my last one was too recent.

    1. Omar Karindu

      Regarding The Prisoner, think the “relevant” pop culture storytelling that holds up best is the stuff that finds a way to add a touch of surrealism or uses deliberately exaggerated allegory to add broader philosophical themes to comment on the present.

      But I suppose that’s timelessness after all.

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