Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Handy guide to silver age writers

At the dawn of the Silver Age DC did not go much for crediting the people who created their comics. Even when Marvel arrived and made a point of including credits on all their books, it was a long time before DC followed suit in any formal way, so it can often be difficult to tell who wrote an given comic.

I've been studying the work of three writers in particular, Bob Haney, Bob Kannigher, and Gardner Fox. Although these three share elements of style and content, they can be told apart by their individual approach.

Bob Haney likes to ground his fantastic stories by inserting fashionable touches from the everyday world, but makes no effort to research these elements, and so often gets them wrong, with hilarious results. I particularly like the way the Teen Titans manage to be so popular with all the young people they meet while they are working for the government in the late sixties.

Gardner Fox, on the other hand, is more inclined to throw in some ludicrous plot element and then spend a page justifying it. The more technobabble that he can stuff in there, the better.

But Bob Kanagher. Ah, Bob Kanagher. Big Bob just does mad stuff and feels no need at all to either justify it or make it relevent. Often his work reads like stream of consciousness, where logic is a toy, and Cause and Effect are just the names of the henchmen.

To give you an example how this works in practice, say you have a story where our hero encounters a crashed spaceship.

Gardener Fox would have the spaceship crash and our hero would be led to it by some convoluted plot of the pilot to trap him in another dimension where he would fight dinosaurs, which for some complicated reason would enable the alien pilot to acquire a thermometer, and hthis would include a whole page explaining why the alien pilot couldn't just walk into a shop and buy one.

Bob Haney would have our hero hanging out at a beach party, surfing and riding jetskis up the beach when the spaceship would crash into the car park, cutting all the hot rods off from the main road and making it impossible for the cool kids to get home before curfew without our hero battling the aliens.

Bob Kannagher would just drop the spaceship in front of the hero and have an alien made of flowers jump out and steal his hat, just as a pirate ship arrives, looking for a quiet spot to drop off some foreign saboteurs with a bomb made of cheese.


SallyP said...

Mmmmm...the thought of cheese bombs is strangely compelling.

Richard said...

Does it say something about your feelings toward Robert Kanigher that you refuse to spell his name differently each time you mention him?

I think you undervalue Gardner Fox; the contemporaries to whom he should be compared are John Broome and Arnold Drake. The three of them share many writing virtues which, granted, aren't really your focus here. But I'd say these guys brought a great deal of knowledge of the world beyond comics or popular culture, and when they could employ references to historical events or philosophy, it broadened the superhero genre. Not to mention that they worked equally fluently outside of superheroes.

With Haney and Kanigher, it's pretty easy to find the wacky, cracktastic, and just plain wrong stuff in the sheer volume of work they produced over the years. It's much harder -- and therefore, I think, more rewarding -- to find their individual strengths. Kanigher in particular never seemed to have much affection for superheroes, so his best work is all outside that genre while his work inside it is all relatively slapdash and careless because he didn't think it was worth any more effort than that. I'm not defending him when I say this. Although it must be said, the first appearance of Barry Allen in Showcase #4 still stands up as greatness.

That said, your hypothetical summaries of all three are hilarious!

Richard said...

Er, I meant "that you refuse to spell his name the same way" of course!

Marionette said...

There was no refusal about it! I was just very tired when I wrote it.

I only compared those three because I've been reading both the Teen Tians and JLA Showcase collections, and comparing the two, and I'm familiar with Kanigher.

I don't much like what I've read of Broome, as his style appears to consist mostly of reusing the same trite plot elements (painting the most unlikely things yellow so the ring can't work on them, having Hal knocked unconscious by random objects to move the plot along) over and over, and in early Green Lantern he can't seem to make up his mind what the limitations of the ring are. And while his characterisations are no more two dimensional than Haney or Fox, the latter two aren't attempting to write a romance subplot between any of their personality-free characters.

I've not read enough Arnold Drake (that I was aware of) to be able to comment on his style, but looking him up I find he was responsible for the Doom Patrol, a series that I've always wanted to read (fingers crossed for a Showcase collection).

And please don't assume I dislike any of the three I am poking fun at. I enjoy their work immensely, but part of the fun for me is finding the gems of absurdity in their work and sharing them.

Intruder_W said...

The thing about Fox was his tendancy to write in sci-fi mode most of the time. His writing was more along the lines of Campbell and Van Vogt, and didn't always gel with superheroics.

It did work with Adam Strange, and the "Mystery in Space" sort of story. His write-ups made it seem sensible that sentient soace Sphinxes on the moon couldn't find the Earth, or Adam Strange could defeat a living Dust Devil with a Wimhurst machine. No, Really.