Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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The Red Skull trumphant!

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

One rite of passage for presidents is a comic-book appearance. These appearances tell us something about how their times, and history, have viewed these U.S. leaders.

There are many examples of this, but here are just a few.

Abraham Lincoln, as a redwood of our history, is portrayed in a simple but saintly way.

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Theodore Roosevelt, who, like Lincoln, was dead by the time this came out, is shown as a 1930s-era action-adventure hero.

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His cousin Franklin Roosevelt is retconned as the secret founder of the Justice Society of America! (Plus the All-Star Squadron, to boot!) In other words, he’s effected great change, frequently from behind the scenes.

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Lyndon Johnson is a straightforward executive who restored calm and stability after the Kennedy assassination.

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(But shortly thereafter (and prior to discontent about the Vietnam War), he becomes a crusader for social justice.)

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And here’s Barack Obama, against a blue sky, radiating hope.

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And now, just one month into his presidency, Donald Trump has made his entry into comic books. Unfortunately, it’s as the voice of the Red Skull. Who is the Red Skull? A supervillain known as a Nazi leftover, archenemy of Captain America, and the antithesis of American democracy.

These, below, are Trump’s exact words, but now assigned by Twitter account “President Supervillain” to an ages-old image of the Red Skull as he battles Captain America.

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Captain America, it should be remembered, was created by two Jews.

Make of all this what you will. I know what I make of it.

For more about President Supervillain and President Donald Trump as the Red Skull, click here.

The new line of succession

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

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I would have voted for Dr. Doom. As one wag noted, he’s the only political leader here who is legitimately concerned with the well-being of his country.

Free comic cheer

Monday, December 19th, 2016

On a day when Donald J. Trump officially gets elected president of the United States, and the Russian ambassador is assassinated in Turkey, I think we all need to look at the 50 comic books that are going to be available to you for free on Free Comic Book Day next May 6.

So here they are. Enjoy.

My Jack Davis story

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

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The great caricaturist and comics artist Jack Davis died yesterday at age 91. He was an important contributor to Mad magazine, a frequent and notable artist for a lot of advertising and many newsstand magazines covers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s — and also the man who drew perhaps the single most objectionable comic book of the 1950’s in the eyes of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, known popularly in some circles as “the Wertham commission.”

That story, “Foul Play!” ran in the May-June 1953 issue of The Haunt of Fear. It concerned a baseball team that decides, after it’s been cheated of its victory, to avenge the death of a teammate by  murdering his killer and playing baseball on his remains:  intestines form the baselines, lungs and liver form the bases, his heart becomes home plate, and of course his severed head is used as the ball.

One can see why, in 1953, at a time when juvenile delinquency seemed like a craze that needed to be stopped, this caught some attention. The story was written up in Dr. Frederick Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent” the following year, and ultimately led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, as well as a lot of comic-book burning. (More about that in a minute.)

(And if you’d like to read that notorious story, click here.)

In 1982, twenty-nine years after “Foul Play!” was published, I had the occasion to interview Jack Davis. I’d gotten the assignment from The Comics Journal, where I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I was living in New Jersey then, so a friend and I drove to upstate New York to visit Mr. Davis in his home. A Georgia native, Jack Davis proved to be rather a quiet man of genteel Southern manners — and a pleasant but somewhat dull interview. At this point in my writing life, and somewhat influenced by the snotty tone of the magazine I was writing for, I had gotten the hang of agitating people to spark up an interview. I’d gotten into a real argument with legendary Batman and Green Lantern writer Denny O’Neil (which led to a strong interview, as well as a brief friendship) and I would go on to provoke people in a variety of ways for several years in many other publications. But Mr. Davis was too nice for my shenanigans, and someone who would be impossible to provoke, and, however informative about his artistic process,  not altogether terribly interesting. And, frankly, although I’d read many of those incendiary EC comics from years before, and issues of Mad, I was the wrong guy to conduct an interview that would reveal the previously uncovered aspects of his career and his history; we touched on a lot of it, but at age 20 I just wasn’t well-informed.

Throughout the 1980s, The Comics Journal printed everything I wrote for them — except that interview. They didn’t run it, and I didn’t blame them. And because they didn’t run it, they didn’t pay me. But, again, I understood. It wasn’t interesting on its own and wasn’t fitting as a piece into a larger editorial theme.

Then in the early 1990s, five years after I’d moved to Los Angeles, someone I’d gone to college with told me that the magazine had (finally) run the interview, and that he’d read it. I couldn’t believe it. The magazine hadn’t sent me a copy, or paid me. (And, in late 2008, after they kept republishing some of my other pieces without permission or pay, I sued them. They finally paid me, and sent me published copies.) I couldn’t get the issue anywhere, and my friend had lost his. I called the publisher, Fantagraphics, and asked for a copy, and was assured that one would be sent. It wasn’t. I wrote to them as well. This went on for a while… and then, finally, I gave up.

Then, today, I got an email from someone at Fantagraphics, asking if they could reprint the interview online, now that Jack Davis had died. I said sure — if they send me a copy. Even a scan. Something! It’s been in (and out) of print for almost 25 years and I still hadn’t seen it — now I’d just like to see it. So, I responded that yes, they can post it, but I want them to send me a copy, because their content is hidden behind a paywall. (Meaning that once again they’ll be making some money, however little, without paying me.)

I figured that I now know what it took for me to see the interview:  for the interviewee to die.

But just now, on a whim, I checked the “settlement package” that my attorney sent to me in January 2009, forwarding from Fantagraphics copies of the book they’d reprinted me in, as well as a check — and found, tucked in there, two xerox copies of the interview with Jack Davis. So I’ve actually had it, at least in a xerox form, for seven years. I just now read it, eagerly.

For 30 years, I’ve remembered only one moment in our interview that had real spark in it. I had asked Mr. Davis about “Foul Play!” and the Senate hearings into comic books. He told me they were televised. (I hadn’t realized that.) And that after listening to the testimony, he had gotten up and turned off the television, and he and his wife took all of his comic books — all of the published copies of his work — into the back yard and put them into a pile. And burned them.

He burned all of his work.

Of course I asked him why, and he said something like, “Because my art was contributing to juvenile delinquency. It was wrong.”

That, to me, was the heart of the interview. Here was a workaday artist, a man who drew on assignment, who’d made most of his career in commercial art, who’d brushed up close with the sort of art that actually provokes a reaction — and he’d recoiled, rejected that experience, and turned away. I pressed for more details — how did his peers feel about that? Did he have more feelings about it? What did his wife say? Did they tell their friends and family? And so forth. But he wouldn’t say any more about it. When he’d burned those comics, he’d left provocation and controversy — the things that some of us actively seek in art — behind for good.

I just checked the published interview. Three times. It’s not in there. Somehow it didn’t make it into print.

Thirty years of waiting, and it’s not there.

I’m wondering if the only record that we have that Jack Davis, an important comics artist in the history of the medium, burnt his own work in his back yard because he felt complicit in harming America’s youth… is this very piece you’re reading.

 

The bottle factory

Friday, April 8th, 2016

More than 30 years ago, I interviewed Denny O’Neil, the foremost writer of Batman comics of the 1970s, the writer who has most influenced the Batman you’ve been seeing in the movies the past 10 years. The interview was for The Comics Journal, and Denny and I got into a heated exchange about low art and high art. He’d once written searing issues-oriented comic-books, taking mainstream comics far far out in new explorations – and now he was writing GI Joe comics.

He defended the GI Joe comics (“Have you read it?” he said. “Basically it’s a superhero comic.”) but I couldn’t imagine how the person who’d tried to address poverty, racism, and drug abuse through the prism of superhero comics could defend writing militaristic toy tie-ins.

Of the entire exchange, and our lunch a week or two later in Manhattan, the thing that made the greatest impression was this: the bottle factory.

I was bemoaning popular low art. (Ironic, for someone writing about comic books, I know.) My lowest-common-denominator example was “Laverne & Shirley.” I don’t know why I hated “Laverne & Shirley” so desperately (nor do I know why my wife’s example later became “Charles in Charge,”), but “Laverne & Shirley” just seemed like the nadir, with its canned laughter and obvious jokes.

Denny’s response to this tirade was this: “Think about the guy at the bottle factory.”

“Huh? What guy at the bottle factory?”

“The poor guy at the bottle factory. He works all day at the bottle factory, he comes off, he wants to take off his shoes, have a beer and watch something simple and entertaining. He doesn’t want to read Tolstoy. It was hard and hot and demanding all day at the bottle factory. He loves ‘Laverne & Shirley.’ It’s what he needs.”

In other words, “Laverne & Shirley” wasn’t for me – but it was certainly for others. A lot of others.

Unfortunately, the choices of those of us who didn’t want “Laverne & Shirley” and its like were severely limited.

At the time, everyone in America was limited to three channels – CBS, NBC, and ABC – and maybe a couple of Ultra High Frequency channels if you could get them (we got 17, and 29, and 48, out of Philadelphia) – and maybe PBS. That was it. And so your choices were: whatever inane original series was on CBS, NBC or ABC; scratchy syndicated shows from an earlier era or old movies; or cheap “it’s good for you” television courtesy of the prim and proper.

For me, watching TV in that era was like working at the bottle factory. With rare exceptions, it was something to be endured.

Now television’s bottle factory has been blown up. It was blown up by cable, which gave creators new freedoms and more opportunities, and the Internet, which did the same and also removed the financial restrictions of needing a studio, and broadcast towers, and expensive cameras and editors and so forth. Now if you’ve got an idea for a show, you can make it yourself and distribute it yourself.

This bonanza of choice has segregated the audience into many little tributes. Today at the airport, a woman near me was excited because a semi-famous contestant from “American Idol” was waiting with us for the same plane. She pointed him out, and showed me his image on her phone as well, but I didn’t know who he was, having never watched “American Idol.” In the 1970s, with so few shows, everyone knew who everyone was.

All of this new choice has also made us pickier. A couple of years ago late at night in some hotel room I fired up Netflix to watch another episode of “Sons of Anarchy” and found myself mostly scrolling through my phone while it was on. Then I realized that not only was I not watching the episode, I’d never watch another one – not just because I didn’t care, but because I had so many choices I didn’t need to settle for this. When the menu is 90 pages long, why order something you don’t want to eat?

A few nights ago, I was watching “Mr. Selfridge” on my DVR and that bottle-factory feeling came over me. The characters I cared about (mostly the women striving to advance in a sexist and classist early 20th century England) were all gone, leaving me entirely at the mercy of Jeremy Piven’s completely ersatz performance. So I deleted it.

In the post-bottle factory age, we have the opposite dilemma. Now that there are an estimated 450 original scripted shows a year, and so many of them are excellent, it would be easy to lose your life to television. I can recommend “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” and “The Good Wife,” but no, I’m not adding “Orphan Black” or “The Americans” or “Homeland” or, probably, any other show that you’re recommending. I don’t have time. I don’t have the time. Well, specifically, I have just as much time as anyone else alive at the moment – but I’m working harder than ever to guard it for other things.

I read somewhere that when there are too many items on a menu, people are more likely to order less – or to order nothing. The wealth of choices is too daunting, so they lose their hunger. I used to yearn for great TV.

But now that it’s here, I wish a lot of it would go away.

Because I’d like to watch it. Really.

Cosplay banned

Friday, April 1st, 2016

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How dumb are some legislators? This dumb:  State legislators in five states just banned Cosplay  because they thought it meant dosing the drinks of beautiful women and then raping them.

 

Comical weekend

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

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This is a little bit of graffiti in my neighborhood.

Okay, it’s the Warner Brothers water tower (still in my neighborhood). On Thursday night, the folks at Warners were kind enough to invite a couple hundred of us to a screening of “Batman v. Superman” on the lot. I won’t say that you’re looking at the best part of the movie (that would be Wonder Woman), but I will say that even with a masters in writing and almost 25 years of teaching dramatic writing, and with five decades of reading comic books starring Batman and Superman, I couldn’t make any sense of whole chunks of the film.

The next day, I went to Wonder Con, the baby brother to Comic-Con, with a couple of friends. Wonder Con, which began years ago in San Francisco and has more lately been in Anaheim, was in downtown Los Angeles this year due to scheduling difficulties with the Anaheim Convention Center. I’m now going to show you the absolutely most wondrous thing I’ve ever seen in Los Angeles. Look closely.

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YES, that is my car parked at a white-striped FREE parking spot right on Figueroa Street, immediately across from the Los Angeles Convention Center. You’re going to want to save this photo. Some day, you will tell your grandchildren that you’d once seen a FREE parking spot in downtown LA and they will sneer at you. They will say, “But Gramps, all parking near the Convention Center is $20, or $30, or frequently even 45 bucks! FREE parking? You’re nuts!” But there it is — absolute proof, and unlike Bigfoot photos, obviously not staged or Photoshopped. It exists! At least, it turns out, until 3 p.m., whereupon it becomes a tow-away zone unmarked by signs.  Good thing my good friend the redoubtable Dr. Trek checked for me. Whereupon I moved my car… into $20 parking. But until then, I had this, I had the FREE PARKING! Another grail quest completed!

Wonder Con, as stated, is much like Comic-Con, if Comic-Con were Galactus and Wonder Con were Ant-Man. (You’ll note that unlike Comic-Con, Wonder Con doesn’t even merit a hyphen. That says a lot.) Still, it’s possible to catch up with old friends and have a grand time. Here I am digging in comics boxes looking for a surprisingly hard-to-find copy of From Beyond the Unknown #8, with a couple of old pals.

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Even Spidey-Sense couldn’t help me find that issue. The search continues.

Unlike the San Diego Convention Center (and, indeed, the City of San Diego itself), where the structure is laid out sensibly, the Los Angeles Convention Center is the product of a twisted mind whose architectural style pairs M.C. Escher with the Marquis de Sade. The Center has no center — there are actually two large buildings separated by a street and an enclosed overhead byway that gives no hint that one is crossing between buildings — and is shaped overall like clumps of organic matter with roots growing through them. You know how sometimes you’ll find a section of an airport closed for renovation and you’re shunted down narrow passageways serving as temporary workarounds? At the Los Angeles Convention Center, these claustrophobic corridors are permanent. Someone actually designed them this way. (And I’m not the only one to remark upon the terrible Los Angeles Convention Center. Mark Evanier has been going on about it as well.) Take this example:

 

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See the people up top? Perhaps you’d like to join them. Now, barring the power of flight, how could you do it. Well, if you back up 20 feet, you find this:

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Yes, that’s a lady in some sort of blue costume. It’s also a stairwell. How do I know it’s a stairwell? I went all the way inside to see what it was. There’s no sign, there’s no window, it’s completely shielded, so there’s no indication that it’s a stairwell — in this case, with a  female Deadpool lying on the steps taking a photo of this lady’s rear end for some reason — but trust me, it’s a stairwell. But then, one shouldn’t be surprised that it’s unmarked:  Most of the interior of the convention center is unmarked. Including access points to the parking garage. It took my friend Larry and me 45 minutes to find my car inside the convention center parking structure on Saturday night, and that was after consulting with a convention center supervisor and a helpful guard who walked us out and still couldn’t find access. (After walking about an hour on our own, Larry and I found it. By luck.)

Even with  the frustrations of parking and navigation, as well as scheduling that left me traversing one end of the convention center back to the other repeatedly over two days during which I burned 550 calories each day just by walking (thanks, iPhone tracker), Wonder Con was great fun. Two added great finds from the Con.

1. I finally got my dream job, and a sense of the benefits.

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2. I finally, actually, really got to see someone dragging toilet paper on his shoe. I guess it isn’t just a classic movie joke.

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With great fame comes great exposure

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

When Marilyn Monroe died young, one wag said, “Good career move.”

Bad career move? That might be Stan Lee outliving his legacy.

Put another way: Stan gets plenty of movie cameos… but I haven’t noticed any art shows of his work, or any biographies not authored by himself, or any museum in the making. All of those things are going to Jack Kirby.

Web of confusion

Friday, February 12th, 2016

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Who created Spider-Man? Was it, as credited, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko? Or was it Jack Kirby, who claimed authorship of the signature costume? Or was it… Halloween-costume company Ben Cooper? (Steve Ditko says no.)

“New” Batman v. Superman trailer

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Batman’s never looked so good as here. Plus, it’s so retro!