24 August 2014

Escape Artists

When I was a kid with a lot of bad stuff going on, I made a magazine rack purchase that would rock my insular teenage world. But first, a word about superheroes.

My dad, 6'4 and 240 pounds, was literally a tower of strength. Examples abounded: During a blizzard on the way to my world debut with my mother in labor, their car slid off a remote rural byway. Dad waded into the deep snow of the ditch and shouldered it back up onto that ice-slicked country road. Another time, to save a guy under a tractor, legend says he lifted nearly 1100 pounds.

He was smart, a voracious reader, largely self-taught, a great marksman, patient, big-hearted, gentle with children and animals of all sizes, and he sided with minorities, the disadvantaged, and those in need. Women loved him, especially my mother. He taught us boys morality and life lessons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living with a real-life superhero.

Except… superheroes are supposed to be invulnerable.

One evening, a Ford station wagon in the wrong lane smashed into him in a head-on collision. His chest reportedly snapped not the steering wheel, but the steering column. The impact shattered the frontal lobe of his skull.

The accident was bad, very bad. When my mother realized he’d be unconscious for months, possibly forever, she boarded my brothers with my grandmother and a family friend. For a while, I still rode the schoolbus out to the farm to milk and feed the livestock. When winter set in and my mother decided to get rid of the last of the stock, I felt bereft. I'd lost purpose.

Books had always been an escape. Our little town was too small to house a library and I’d already ravaged everything our school offered worth reading. From adults, I filched copies of the Mikes: Mike Hammer, Mike Shayne, and Mike Nomad. Their adventure and soupçon of sex was titillating, but I was running out of reading material.

Doc Savage
Many such as my father and James Lincoln Warren enjoyed Doc Savage, but I couldn’t. The problem was Savage was too perfect, especially compared to his aides: The golden-eyed protagonist was smarter than the smartest, stronger than the strongest, faster than the fastest… In fact, much of Doc’s time was spent rescuing his own squad. What good were they?

Escape Artists

I turned to comics, which were controlled by a censor organization called the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was fueled by McCarthy-era Senate hearings and Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The book convinced parents (possibly including my own mother) that comic books were a subversive evil that, if not stamped out entirely, should be rigidly controlled. Wertham was right, of course, comic books were delightfully subversive and could potentially provide a spark to make children think.

DC then dominated the comic book world. DC, which originally stood for Detective Comics, should not to be confused with Dell Comics that specialized in actual 'wholesome' funnies and counted among their licensees Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, and the Lone Ranger and Tarzan series.

You probably know many of the classic DC characters, their most famous being Superman and Batman. Superman was okay, strong and smart. Well, sort of smart: He seemed to prefer the shallow, groupie-type Lois Lane to the more caring Lana Lang who liked Clark for himself.

Batman, appearing in Detective Comics, was a stretch. With no detectives in sight, Batman’s main superpower appeared to be bottomless buckets of money and an obsession with bats. Like all other superheroes and heroines, his chest was approximately 300% larger than the average person's rib cage. His little buddy Robin, decked out in leftover off-Broadway garish costumes, seemed to do little more than pedantically cheer Batman on. “You show them, Caped Crusader!”

Another writer described DC characters as the Pat Boones of the graphics novel world– clean-cut and rather dull. Deflecting speeding bullets and emotions, their perfect protagonists led detached Stepford lives. Theirs were comics without comics.

DC endured competition grudgingly: EC (Entertaining Comics), Timely Comics (later to be known as Atlas), and the broad-spectrum Charlton Comics, later assimilated along with Fawcett and Dell by DC.

The Real Villains

Judgment Day
Given their bent toward social and political issues, Entertaining Comics particularly chafed under the rigid restrictions of the CCA, without whose approval they couldn’t find national distribution. Once when the CCA told EC’s publisher he couldn’t use a negro as the main character in a story. William Gaines famously exploded, telling the CCA that was the whole point of the parable, a story you can read here.

Afterwards, a disgusted Gaines turned his back on comics and founded, as you’re sure to know, Mad Magazine.

original Marvel
In 1939, Timely (Atlas) Comics featured a wise-cracking superhero called the Torch. Although Timely used 'Marvel' more as a series title than an imprint, the cover used the words “Marvel Comics”. Later on, small letters MC would appear on many covers of this line.

Timely/Atlas successfully copied the business and publication models of rival DC, but the publisher took a creative tangent. They sometimes portrayed monsters and personated troubled characters as superheroes, one of them an afflicted physicist, Bruce Banner, who in times of emotional stress would become a monstrous green-toned giant with anger issues, and somehow managed to do the wrong thing the right way. Marvel cast scientists and other very smart people in rôles of both good guys and bad guys, not so much a departure from other publishers but giving more of an emphasis.

Bitten by the Bug

So there I was, a kid at loose ends, separated from family, father in a coma, mother staying with him on the other side of the world, forty or so miles away. I turned from reading trashy adult novels to comic books. One afternoon, I picked up a very different one that would become a cult publication.

Its main character was a near-sighted, very smart whiz-kid, an orphan who lived with his aunt and uncle. Although he admired one girl from afar, he was shy and bullied by bigger, meaner kids. Then, a scientific field trip changed everything. The boy sufferd a bite by a radioactively-infected arachnid.

The bite stung and swelled, but the boy discovered that his vision improved and he grew stronger, so strong that he earned extra money appearing as a masked wrestler. He remained withdrawn and once his bullies were convinced he wasn't one to mess with, he settled into a quiet existence, satisfied to earn a few dollars as a kind of a television reality star.

Perhaps too quiet and satisfied: One evening when he was leaving the television studio, he ignored a security guard who asked his help to stop a fleeing thief. Upon returning home, he saw police and an ambulance at his house; a man had just robbed and killed his beloved Uncle Ben.

Angry and in pain, the boy donned his homemade wrestling costume and tracked down the man who killed his uncle only to discover it was the thief he’d earlier refused to help catch. The last panel contained the caption “With great power must come great responsibility.”

The boy of course became Spiderman who, unlike other superheroes, had trouble balancing his secretly heroic life, his job, his schoolwork, and his responsibility helping Aunt May with their strained finances. He was like any other young adult dropped in that situation, up to his ears in unforeseen headaches.

There’d never been a comic book hero like him before. Adults assumed the attraction of Spiderman’s Peter Parker lay in his teenage youthfulness, something kids could identify with. That may have been partially true, but Stan Lee developed something more important– characterization. I wasn’t a writer yet, but I understood what set this character apart from the competition.


Fantastic Four
The snappy bickering between the Fantastic Four’s wiseass Human Torch and the brooding Thing were humorous, but Spiderman so overshadowed other characters I rarely bothered to follow them.

DC and Marvel developed their own universes and then alternate universes. Characters died and were brought back to life. Series went through ‘reboots’. I grew impatient and then I grew up (supposedly) and my brother Glen took over my early Spiderman collection.

At a time when my friend Steve and I were both dimeless and dameless, we sometimes visited the local theatres to watch one of the Ice Age flicks or Monsters Inc. He’s a graphic artist and my background was computing so our movie conversations would run along the lines of, “Wow, did you notice how they animated those strands of fur?” “Yeah, and notice the 3-D shadowing?”

Captain America
Steve manages to simultaneously be more of a kid and more grown up than I. He loves the superhero movie franchises, especially Marvel’s. Beyond Spiderman, the WW-II historical Captain America, and those very dark Batman reels, I’m considerably more tepid, but I see writing lessons in these films.

Critics didn’t much like the Fantastic Four film for which Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie Award. Michael Chiklis was good as the Thing, but I pondered why I didn’t like the movie. I concluded that the overall plot seemed unfair, four against one, the F4 against one villain. A supposedly epic saga demanded that if anything, the odds should be stacked against the good guys. [Note to self: a hero’s worth is only as great as the massed evil of his nemeses.]


Steve celebrated another birthday last week, and our small circle of friends gathered for dinner and a movie. He chose Guardians of the Galaxy.

Knowing nothing about it, I looked up a headline and muttered, “WTF? Vin Diesel as a tree? Rocky Rac…” Well, never mind what I thought but I slouched into the theatre knowing nothing about it and not particularly optimistic.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Unexpectedly, it… blew… me… away. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The best part was the characterization, both good guys and bad. And dialogue that was both funny and poignant. And heart, the movie had heart. For one thing– pardon the pun– Vin Diesel’s bark was better than his bite.

The film parodies superhero canons. A minor character, Rhomann Dey, says about the antihero Quill, “He’s also known as Star Lord.” “Who calls him that?” “Himself, mostly.”

Drax is a very literal character, incapable of understanding oblique references. He tells Quill, “Do not ever call me a thesaurus.” When Rocket explains that metaphors go over his head, Drax says “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast; I would catch it.”

Gamora, the heroine attracted to Quill, tells him, “I am not some starry-eyed waif to succumb to your… your… pelvic sorcery.”

Villains make or break otherwise good movies and Ronan, devilishly intimidating, is not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley, never mind a cavernous hall of doom.

And there’s Yondu who kidnaps Quill when a child. He’s sort of ambiguously bad, which makes the rôle interesting. Plus he has a cool toy, a golden arrow with a mind of its own.

The main hero in the story, Quill a/k/a Star Lord, learns to grow up, shoulder responsibility, survive and even thrive, thanks to his dying mother. My dad… that was a near thing. Many months later, he wheeled out of the factory-authorized repair shop dented and battered, as one tends to be when clobbered by two tons of Michigan steel. Whether I’ve grown up is debatable, but for progress in that direction I give a nod to superheroes of all stripes.

Rotten Tomatoes says 92% of critics like the film. See the movie: You can study the dialogue and characterization… or you can simply enjoy the show.


  1. A good piece. I think you should write a memoir.

  2. Leigh, I'd like to know more about your dad. You're a lot like him in many ways.

  3. I think I'll try to see the movie.

    I agree with Janice, write a memoir.

  4. Enjoyed this, Leigh! I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy. too. Went to see it last week with one of our sons. I had a little trouble accepting Rocket Raccoon (and Glenn Close's bad haircut), but otherwise I liked it. As you said, good dialogue and great characters.

  5. What specific lessons should we loo for in Guardians?

  6. LOOK for I mean!

  7. Thank you, Janice, Fran, and Louis. I worry my audience for a memoir would be an audience of one, but I guess in a way these are memoirs and there is an audience! Thank you.

    Louis, I think you might like it.

  8. John, the thought of Rocket made me leery but I came to accept it. One of the reviewers said the elements least likely to work, the tree and the raccoon, helped make the film more enjoyable.

    I haven’t seen this mentioned in reviews, but the raccoon could be viewed as another level of superhero spoof involving anthropomorphized animals. Did you catch Howard the Duck as the credits rolled? And the notice in the credits that no raccoons or trees were harmed in the making of the film?

    Anon, that’s a good question.

    The main catalyst for the good guys is their chemistry with each other with loyalty and affection underpinning everything. Another quality is the humor, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes stinging. When threatened with death, indeed, when threatened with being eaten, Quill falls back on humor. That says to me that he’s been there before, that he’s a bit world-weary, but not completely cynical. And the attraction between Gamora and Quill is present but well underplayed, the opposite of how a James Bond film might end. The viewer has the feeling they might get there, but in their own time and their own way.

    The most terrifying bad guys are absolutely ruthless and Ronan is that, not even fearing the guy who threatened him with annihilation. Their madness is not only destructive, it is self-destructive as well.

    Nebula was more problematic, but I don’t like seeing men fighting and slugging women, which has become de rigueur in movies. Here, the wicked Nebula gets to do battle (with Gamora) without setting off that annoying chivalry note in my head.

    Finally, Captain Yondu, collector of dolls and bric-a-brac is menacing, but as his own henchmen pointed out, he has an unreasonable soft spot for Quill. That ambivalence makes him interesting.

  9. "on the other side of the world, forty or so miles away"
    Leigh, this line alone brands you as a brilliant writer. So much said, in 12 words. I'd like to use this in my Crafting a Novel college course as an example of "Show Not Tell." (With correct attributes, of course)
    Always enjoy your columns.

  10. Please, Melodie. Feel free. And thank you!

  11. I really enjoyed the description of your father, Leigh, and also the type of 'superhero' you were more attracted to. This left me to ponder over two questions: (1) If people will get tired at some point of superheroes with huge fights which seem to destroy half of the city buildings and explosions and, (2) What other super powers might ever be created which would be accepted? [rubbing tummy & top of head at the same time, but faster than anyone else I don't think would count.] Senior Mutant Ninja Cicadas?
    I recall many decades ago one character introduced in a Superman comic who had the ability to inflate himself and bounce all over the world. Short comic life on that one, if I recall.

  12. Bradley, you raise one of the points Spiderman's newspaper editor employer raises. The editor (something like J Jonah Jameson) believes Spiderman is a menace and possibly criminal and does his best to bring him down, ironically employing Peter Parker (Spidey) to capture photographs of his dastardly shenanigans. While Parker captures what he sees as good deeds, the newspaperman sees as villainous.

    As for the second question, superpowers can be empathy, consideration, patience, kindness. I highly regard hostage negotiators who try to bring a bloodless resolution to a bad situation. That's an amazing superpower!

  13. Leigh, you are a super hero of word weaving.
    And Now another person has requested your memoirs. If you are still squeamish about a memoir, compromise and use your family as a template for a fiction?

  14. Claire, that's a good suggestion, and while I haven't used their stories in writing, I have used them as templates. Most often I use amalgams of people I know and my father figures prominently in characters that act thoughtfully but directly.

    I've used my brothers, particularly in a story I'm working on with a very authority-defiant character who naturally gets himself into trouble. One brother's fingerprints are all over that on!

  15. Really enjoyed this, Leigh. And I found it timely, having seen a documentary on Stan Lee, a few nights ago, on NetFlix. I'd never known why that stamp of approval was on old comics, before.

    My 25 yr old son & his girlfriend took my daughter and 11 yr old son to see Guardians at a special preview, in a theater with a giant screen (reputedly, the size originally used to show 70 mm films, I believe). The topper is that my younger son, Quen, who is into "cosplay", dressed as "Groot" the tree guy, when they went. At the theater, they encountered adult cosplayers, paid by the theater. And the guy playing Groot, who stood on stilts according to my kids, took one look at Quen and said, "You're looking good, Sapling!" LOL


  16. (laughing) Dixon, that's good (and he wouldn't want to leave). During the credits (I mentioned a joke earlier), there's a sapling dance. It is a fun flick and I suspect the crew enjoyed making it.

    Without the CCA seal, distributors and wholesalers wouldn't carry the magazines, so the CCA held publishers in an iron grip. Dell fought back, arguing their comics were so wholesome they didn't need a seal and for a while they succeeded, but they eventually succumbed, selling out to DC if I recall correctly.

  17. Well Fran, in a way your right and wrong!? From the many descriptions Leigh has given of his Dad, a true Super Hero in his own right. I have to believe he was a grown up!

    On the other hand, Leigh is and always will be my Super Hero Friend. Rocket cried that got me. Classic Next up the $175 Million "Jupiter Ascending!"

    A feast for those who love Matte Painting and Visual effects.

  18. A Broad Abroad24 August, 2014 16:08

    So enjoyed this piece. Would love to have met your father. Add another to your memoir audience.
    (Among other things, clever title.)

  19. Steve (laughing), too sharp! Ouch! You are a great friend indeed.

    I’ll read up on Jupiter Ascending; I’ve been really out of touch.

    ABA, thank you. I’m glad you like the title. And yes, you’d have loved my dad.

  20. When you think about it, deductions as done by Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie characters are kind of a superpower, one that could exist in all of us.

  21. Like Leigh, I read everything and loved the more obscure comics like Space Ranger and The Fly.
    EC comics were edgy and lacked superheroes. Authors like Lovecraft, Bierce, and Poe didn't feature those types of protagonists.

    As mentioned, Dad was our gentle hero until the wreck caused him severe head injury. He VERY slowly recovered, with a lot of burden on Mom. It was a long haul.

  22. Brother Leigh,I,too,learned our hero figure was not invulnerable!To stubbornly hang onto life, slowly learn to live and begin to read and think again...now THAT was heroic! I know Dad's terrible injury affected you differ try than me, and we all feared we'd lose him. Thank you for such a good portrayal of our Father. Your brother, Glen K. Lundin


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