continued from yesterday’s post
If Atlas Comics was indeed the “NEW House Of Ideas”, then what did The Grim Ghost have to say about this brand new direction for comicbooks? Somewhat bewilderingly, the comic suggested the brave new world of Atlas was nothing more or less than a return to the Golden Age and its pulpish, logic-light, and one-dimensional story telling. For not only was the figure of The Grim Ghost a clear, to be polite, repurposing of The Spectre in his 1940 set-up, as discussed here yesterday. Fleisher, with artist Ernie Colon, had also opted to return to the traditions of plotting and scripting that had been the norm prior to the Marvel Revolution. Out went the suggestion of individual depth lent by Lee, Kirby and Ditko’s innovations. Out went the empathetic, liberal engagement that allowed even the likes of Doctor Doom to be portrayed as a sympathetically tragic figures. Out went the partial engagement with contemporary social problems and the references, convincing or not, to pop culture. Instead, Fleisher displayed the same fondness for decades-old meat-and-potatoe horror comics storytelling that he’d already shown with The Spectre, and that he would go on to make use of in much of his subsequent work. (It would be true even in many of his scripts for the weird western series Jonah Hex, although the same run would also see some of his most subtle, humane and touching work.)
It might be thought that the presence in The Grim Ghost of an executed highwayman working willingly in the Devil’s cause might have seemed fresh and exciting. Yet the book’s back-to-basics structure negated any sense of the shock of the unfamiliar. For it wasn’t just that Fleisher was choosing a narrative technique that hailed from the time before the Marvel Revolution in its mid-60s form. The heirs of Marvel’s founders had, in the almost-decade since, been refining and extending what the company’s tradition could encompass. In short, Fleisher was retreating from a fecund creative culture that was moving ever forward, for all that it was doing so in a partial and chaotic fashion. Even as the comicbook industry’s sales floundered, its books were often displaying an ever-greater variety of influences and approaches. (Many old-stagers, and perhaps most famously Shazam/Captain Marvel co-creator C. C. Beck, insisted that very change was the cause of the industry’s tailspinning decline.) From the counter-culture to mainstream liberal concerns, from classic American illustration to Pre-Raphaelite and Art Deco stylings, from hybrids lifted from any number of popular genres to ambitiously experimental yarn-spinning: the mid-70s newsstand American comicbook was, in one of its brief moments of relative open-mindedness and artistic ambition, proving to be a characteristically fluid, dynamic and self-conscious form. Fleisher, for ill or good, was opting to swim hard against the tide..
If the majority of comics from the Big Two were in many ways predictable and hidebound, there was still a vanguard of forward-thinking creators who clearly believed that change wasn’t just enticing, but central and exciting and necessary. In the light of that, even writers and artists as brilliant and recently-lauded as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were falling ever further behind in both critical acclaim and, most importantly, sales. Fairly or not, their work often seemed more backward-looking than forward-propelled. No matter how thin and facile the sheen of the modern often was in the comics of 1974/5, sales figures assure us that the readership showed a pronounced dislike for stories which appeared, no matter how brilliantly, to hail from more apparently simple and archaic traditions. When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel and Captain America in 1976, the title’s sales immediately and disastrously collapsed. Then, as time passed, they continued to decline. And if the work of Kirby, who was in many ways still engaging excitingly with contemporary issues, couldn’t stay afloat with a character he’d co-founded, and for the company he’d in large helped to create, then what hope for Fleisher and The Grim Ghost?
Of course, it didn’t often do to be too far ahead of the curve in the 70s either. When Jim Starlin shifted from the cosmic-superheroics of Captain Marvel to the Moorcockian sword’n’sorcery of Warlock, the audience opted, in the whole, not to follow. Too little change or too much? It’s a dilemna that any popular form in a mass market has to walk, and success can, it’s true, often be because of chance as much as design. To reference and rework previous characters and tales had been the bedrock of the cape and costume book since Marvel had chanced upon the virtues of continuity. But that was a trick that could feel terribly over-familiar without reference to the tastes of the age. Yet for Fleisher, who cared little for those tastes in the 70s, it was the stripping back of forms to their most historical primal form that appeared to most appeal. It undeniably made for some interesting tales that ran almost entirely against the current of the age. But like any obsessive return to the creative principles of a previous age, Fleischer’s work would often struggle not to seem, for all its perversity, rather single-noted and peripheral.
Of all the many young creators who came to a measure of prominence in the years from 1972-4, and there were a great many of them, a whole wave of young and passionate tale-tellers, Fleischer may well have read and processed the greatest number of old comic books. He had, after all, read literally thousands of old titles – often from DC Comics’ own archives – while researching and writing the three published volumes of The Encyclopaedia of Comic Book Heroes. (He’d later let it be known that he’d prepared several more volumes beyond those in print, which covered the careers of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, and that they included entries on non-DC characters from Quality Comics, Fawcett, Timely and Marvel.) For a man who never truly warmed to superheroes, and particularly to post-60s takes on the genre, Fleisher certainly knew a great deal about them. Reading his work, it’s impossible not to believe that he’d also enjoyed a great many of the bleak and violent pre-mid 50s titles that had so appalled the hysterical book-banners of the period. Whatever else might be said, Fleisher’s story-choices weren’t grounded in ignorance. There can no doubt that he knew exactly what techniques he was rejecting. His preference for older narrative methods was nothing other a matter of a knowledgable professional making a deliberate choice about the kind of story he wanted to tell.
Just how antique in form and content his work could can be seen by the resemblance of The Grim Ghost #1 to the origin story, from 1940, of the Golden Age Black Widow. In truth, the similarities between the two stories, separated as they were by almost a quarter of a century, is in some ways remarkable, as I hope to show in tomorrow’s blog.
to be continued;