CAPES, COWLS & COSTUMES >> Comic Book Prose

From looking at this column, you’d think all I ever read is books, books, books. That’s not entirely true. I also read comic books. Not nearly as many as I used to — it’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that most of ‘em these days … meh! — but still more than your average middle-aged American male.

But I must admit to the appearance of a little twinkle in my eye and a quiver of joy in my heart when, flipping through a comic book, I come across pages filled with nothing but words. I’m not talking about a letter column or blowhard editorial hype page — and they do blow hard — but an honest-to-goodness text piece: a story in words.

You don’t have to look much beyond the dawn of the comic-book industry to find text stories starring the heroes. From 1939, SUPERMAN #1 featured a two-page story, included not for creative reasons, but because postal regulations required magazines have at least that many pages of editorial text matter to qualify for cheaper third-class mailing rates. The writing was everything you’d expect from something created to satisfy the post office:

“One lithe leap brought him to the window-sill. There he poised momentarily, while his keen telescopic vision surveyed the vicinity. And then, as he sighted the figure of ‘Biff’ scrambling into a parked auto, he dived out into space.

“Out—out—sped the fantastic figure … its mighty muscles launching it across an incredible distance. The auto was a full three hundred yards away, but SUPERMAN smashed down into the gravel before it, just as the gears clashed and it leapt ahead.”

Superman vs. Biff. (Are you listening, Bryan Singer?) The occasional hero-themed text feature was not uncommon over the years: ALL-STAR COMICS showcased Johnny Thunder and Dr. Mid-Nite; at Timely Comics, young Stan Lee’s first published work was a prose story in CAPTAIN AMERICA #3, in 1941. At Quality Comics, Plastic Man and Doll Man got the text treatment, as did Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel. Jr. at Fawcett. The practice faded away after a few years; it was easier for publishers to buy non-hero specific genre stories that they could use in any title, or science-fact features that they could crib from some textbook.

The superhero text story made a slight comeback in the 1970s. No longer a two-page postal requirement (the regs were still on the books, but most comics satisfied it with letters pages or “Stan’s Soapbox” features), these stories started being used as events. One of the earliest of those appeared in 1978’s BATMAN SPECTACULAR #15, billed on the contents page thusly: “A New Concept Comes to BATMAN! A suspense-filled tale of murder and mystery told in dramatic prose by DENNY O’NEIL! Embellished by the graphic art of MARSHALL ROGERS!”

Talk about truth in advertising. Denny and Marshall’s “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” is a terse, 15-page story, very liberally illustrated with the latter’s art, as always, a pleasure to behold (I’m slightly biased, however; Marshall penciled the very first story I ever sold to DC Comics). I’m sure I’ve written before of my admiration for O’Neil, an iconic Silver Age creator who can still out-write any of us punk bastard wannabes under the table, in comics or prose. Back in those days, Denny was one of the few comic book writers with any experience writing prose (Gerry Conway was another), and he was and remains one of the best interpreters of the Dark Knight to ever touch the character.

His story sends Batman racing full-tilt through the Gotham underworld in pursuit of a killer, which ends aboard a private plane, with one man who can find nowhere to hide as Batman comes for him. Denny ends the story with 13 words, spread over three captions. Marshall’s picture conveys the story without any need of those words, but the melding of the two on the black-and-white interior back cover of the issue? Jinkies!

The next opportunity for a suspense-filled tale of murder and mystery was in the giant-sized 500th issue of DETECTIVE COMICS in 1981. Yes, once again the subject is Batman, although if you think about it, of all the DC superheroes, the Caped Crusader really does seem the best-suited to the pulp stylings of these little stories. And pulp with a capital “Ulp!” is what “The Batman Encounters Gray Face” delivers, written by pulp legend Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow, and nicely illustrated by Tom Yeates of SWAMP THING fame. While scoring a story by Gibson was good PR, he was known more for his speed (writing 50,000-word novels in a matter of days) and over-the-top plotting than his way with prose, and his 1940s-excesses are a little tough to take in 1980, when readers were already beginning to look for a little more sophistication in their storytelling:

“By then, the bearded men were approaching Garland with the rope and the eager glint in their eyes was all the warning Garland needed. He realized once those strangling coils were tightened around his neck, he would never hope to wrest himself from their tenuous grip. Frantically, he appealed to Gray Face: ‘The pearl is yours! Keep it! All I ask is freedom! Freedom to go my way—‘”

Alas, Grant’s most tenuous grip seemed to be on his understanding of Batman, as well as his vocabulary words.

O’Neil was back on Batman in 1990’s MS. TREE QUARTERLY #1 with a short story titled “The Name,” which also featured some seriously nice charcoal illustrations by Mike Grell (WARLORD, SABLE). The evening begins with Bruce Wayne and Alfred coming under attack by a couple of thugs outside Wayne Manor, drawing Batman into the mystery of The Order of the Black Rose, a secret society with a long and bloody history. Oh, and one which Alfred’s ancestor may have betrayed; it’s either him or the granddad of some other guy, who’s gone missing. As secret societies are wont to do, this lot’s waited a century to come for the descendants of the two men and get their vengeance. As O’Neil is wont to do, he ends the story on a note of moral ambiguity that leaves you asking questions instead of having it all neatly wrapped up and pre-digested for you.

More recently, both DC and Marvel have come across with some prose in the pages of their comics. Two years ago, BATMAN #663 saw the über-creepy “The Clown at Midnight,” a book-length illustrated text story by Grant Morrison, with Dave McKean-worthy art by John Van Fleet. “There’s something about clowns at a funeral and it’s hard to say if it’s sad or funny,” the story begins, and that it ends at The Joker should be no surprise. Nor should we be surprised at Grant’s skill as he weaves his tale in a tone reminiscent of an eccentric Englishman, which, come to think of it …

“But Harley Quinn, cornered, puts rats to shame and moves so much faster than even her beloved Joker can recall. It takes him completely by surprise when she punches her need upwards. With the kind of splintering crack a bullwhip makes, the Joker’s left forearm folds up like a blind man’s cane and the razor flies from his dead fingers to clink across the titles. Harley wiggles free of the flapping, smashed limb leaving the Joker a quiet moment to contemplate the splintered bone shards projecting at a fifty-degree angle from his skinny wrist. The grin never leaves his face and never will, despite the flaring up of agony tat registers as a sharp constriction of his jet black pupils.”

Marvel Comics has usually been the more aggressive of the major companies when it comes to licensing its heroes out for novels, but it’s never been much for with prose stories. The exception here is last winter’s MONSTER-SIZE HULK #1, featuring a short story by Peter David, known for his decade-plus run on the Jolly Green One’s monthly comic, as well as several novels — including movie novelizations — thereof, and illustrated by Gabriel Hardman in a style oh-so-smacking of Gene Colan.

Which is appropriate, as the story, “Blood Count,” puts Bruce Banner and his monstrous alter ego together with Count Dracula. Mistaking the villagers’ attack on Dracula as being directed at him, Hulk sends the common people scurrying, thus saving Dracula’s undead hide. In thanks, Dracula welcomes, “freely and of your own will,” Hulk into his castle. The next morning, after a relaxing night’s sleep, the Hulk wakes up, transformed back into Bruce Banner and that’s when things get interesting.

Next time: Back to books! —Paul Kupperberg

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19 Comments »

Comment by Alan Kistler
2009-03-13 08:31:07

“Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” was one of my favorite stories as a kid. I was visiting Jack Burnley (a friend of my grandparents) and was just getting into comics and he tossed me the collection of Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. That story blew me away because it was the first time I started thinking about the different techniques you can use and the different effects you can achieve when you have to rely on prose rather than an artist showing you exactly what’s happening and vice versa.

I think comic companies should do more to get out prose work out there or at least prose-heavy work. Some comic fans feel weird picking up the novels when comics are such a visual medium and some folks, sadly, still feel silly being seen with a regular comic (and there’s a small section of folks I’ve met who say that they have trouble reading comics because they find the mix of art and dialogue to be odd and distracting). Prose heavy-works such as O’Neil and Morrison’s stories or works such as “Stardust” could be a fun go-between/introduction for folks while also attracting older fans. Just a thought.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-13 09:13:47

You’re preaching to the choir, Alan. Comics prose doesn’t have to be lightweight works. I know enough of the people who write these things to know that most are serious writers trying to do a good job, but even if every book could be Tom DeHaven’s IT’S SUPERMAN, the public perception of “comic books” is that it’s juvenile stuff; most comic book movies only reinforce that idea. The public will take “graphic novels” seriously…but for all that and even with WATCHMEN tagged by TIME Magazine as 1 of the 100 best novels of the 20th century (uhhh….really?) and selling 1 million copies in the last year (no exaggeration), I’ve still yet to see a grown-up reading it on the bus or train or in a waiting room.

Comment by Allan
2009-03-13 16:05:06

I’ve read Watchmen on the bus, but then some people do say I look young for my age.

Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-13 16:13:27

That’s one!

I travel on the NYC transit system, take Metro-North commuter railroad in and out of New York and Connecticut and generally get around in a major Metropolitan area. WHATEVER is currently on the bestseller list, I see numerous people reading on any given trip…but I don’t never see a grown up (defined as anyone past college age) reading WATCHMEN or any other graphic novel.

 
 
 
 
Comment by mike baron
2009-03-13 08:39:30

Paul, you are still the man.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-13 09:03:13

You’re still all that too, man! Mr. Baron, for those who don’t know, wrote SLEEPERS: BOOK 1 (published by iBooks), a fine and frantic Green Lantern novel for me back in the DC Licensed Publishing days. I recommend the whole trilogy if you can find them…and, of course, is the man behind NEXUS and THE BADGER.

 
 
Comment by mike baron
2009-03-13 10:25:19

Paul, I’m actually much prouder of Witchblade: Demons which you covered in a previous column. Still learning how to write. I should have my own original fantasy to market in about a year. It’s written, but the long search for a crack in the citadel of publishing begins.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-13 10:31:06

Another fine effort that slipped by DCcentric mind. I’ve currently got my own original mystery novel (albeit with a comic book twist to it) out there right now searching for a crack of its own in that thar citadel. Best of luck to us both!

 
 
Comment by Greg Cox
2009-03-13 11:09:06

As I recall, there was an all-prose issue of HOWARD THE DUCK as well, written quickly by Steve Gerber to avoid the Dreaded Deadline Doom!

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-13 15:04:53

I didn’t remember that one. Thanks, Greg. I’ll have to hunt it down.

 
 
Comment by Alan Kistler
2009-03-13 11:09:19

Mr. Baron, I enjoyed Sleepers 1 and will be looking forward to original work by you.

Paul, I hear ya about Watchmen and I definitely think it’s over-rated. When I was 14, it was amazing. When I stopped rebelling against the world, it became a good story that I enjoy and respect but don’t agree with. If you’re going to embrace outlandish notions such as psychics being completely accepted/reliable phenomena, a man able to reassemble himself into a quantum being, an athlete who’s able to catch bullets and toss a heavy guy like the Comedian through five-inch glass, and that a vigilante like Rorschach could evade the police for so many years … then why make such a show of being “realistic” just because you’re also unwilling to also embrace the idea that super-heroes can be good, generally balanced people?

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Comment by Keith Holt
2009-03-13 15:56:22

Paul,

Has anyone ever put together a compilation of thos golden age prose stories? If not, someone should seiously think about it. I’d love to read those.

And I agree with your estimation of Tom De Haven’s “It’s Superman.” That was a wonderful book.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-13 15:58:59

Keith-If I’m ever able to get one of my little pet projects off the ground, such a compilation would be part of it.

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Comment by Keith Holt
2009-03-13 16:11:36

Well, if you need someone to take your pet for a walk, let me know. I’d be glad to help.

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Comment by rob!
2009-03-13 19:56:27

That page of artwork from Ms. Tree is sweeeet…

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Comment by Kevin Dilmore
2009-03-13 23:07:47

Greg beat me to the punch here, but yeah, I was going to remark on the all-prose HTD, which is issue 16 titled “Deadline Doom.”

I came into comics full-tilt in 1977 when I bought issue 7 of Marvel’s tie-in for Star Wars (the cover blared “Beyond the Movie! Beyond the Galaxy!” if i recall) and not long after bought issue 23 of HTD (part 2 of “Star Waaugh!”). That prompted me to scour my environs for back issues of Howard. I enjoyed the parody stuff, and I really enjoyed Steve Gerber’s writing. But “Deadline Doom!” helped me to appreciate the actual people responsible for comics.

I think it still holds up, and if you can track it down nowhere else, it’s in the Marvel Essential (“phone book”) edition of Howard the Duck Vol. 1.

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Comment by Paul Kupperberg
2009-03-14 08:30:24

Kevin, it’s coming back to me now–completely forgot about that issue. Thanks, guys, for the reminder because, y’know, I NEED to try and cram more stuff into the bookshelves…!

 
 
Comment by Rod
2009-03-14 10:50:45

I have to be honest: I’ve never liked seeing prose stories in comics. I’ll read a tie-in novel, sure, but to me, it’s like, I’m buying comics to read that format specifically. Kind of like how I hate seeing commercials in movie theaters; if I wanted to watch TV, I could’ve stayed home.

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Comment by Alan Kistler
2009-03-14 15:35:40

Rod,

How DARE you voice a differing opinion. HOW DARE YOU?! No, kidding. 🙂 In all seriousness, I think that’s a valid point and I have two friends who feel completely the same way.

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