Monday, August 1, 2016

The Twisted Roots of Comics

I first went to the San Diego Comics Convention in 1984. I went as a fan, but also to do some interviews and research on a book Will Jacobs and I were writing, a history of modern superhero comics called The Comic Book Heroes. I'd been to comics conventions before, but nothing like this: more than 5,000 people filling two rooms of a decent-sized convention center, and almost all of them talking about comic books. There were already a few people lamenting the early days, when the con had been small and intimate, but for me it was a thrill.
       The next year I went back as the author of a book of comics history about to be published, with copies of the cover in hand. The year after that I went as a somewhat well-known member of the industry's "fan press." In 1987 I went as what we called a "pro" or "creator," specifically as the cowriter of a low-profile comic book called The Trouble with Girls, which made me feel like a member of an exclusive club. The next year I went and discovered I had fans. In 1989 I went as the writer of a DC superhero series, with more projects in the works to brag about, and it was at the con, in the lobby between the two big rooms, that I learned that The Trouble with Girls had been picked up by 20th Century-Fox. I could plausibly pose as a big shot.
       The convention had its own experience with big-shotism in those years. Comics got hip. Dark Knight, Watchmen, Maus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and finally the Tim Burton Batman. Attendance soared suddenly to 11,000. Two years later, the con moved to the colossal new convention center by the harbor, with its interlocking halls and absurdly high ceilings, and the bigger publishers started setting up towering, flashing, booming displays as if they were at a real trade show. The video game business jumped on board, then Hollywood. By its second year at the new location, attendance had broken 20,000, two years later 30,000. The comic book business itself suffered a bubble-popping and cataclysmic decline in the mid-'90s, but by then comics were a small enough part of Comic Con that it was easy not to notice. 
       My own career didn't follow the same upward trajectory. I found myself much in demand, took on too much, burned out, started doing mediocre work, and became pretty negative about the whole industry. In the lean years it took a lot of work just to find work, and I didn't have the stomach for it anymore. By the end of the '90s I was happy to move my career back to nonfiction, where it had started. 
       Still, I kept going to the con. It was getting pretty unpleasant in a many ways by the time attendance broke 50,000 around the turn of the century (and I probably wouldn't have hung in if I hadn't had a good friend in San Diego to stay with and hang around the con with), but I never stopped wanting to go. By then, what kept me most connected to the thing was just what had brought me there in the first place: my love for the medium and its history. I went there to research another book about comics history, Men of Tomorrow, then again to promote it, then again to accept an Eisner Award for it, and several times since to join various esoteric panel discussions of how comics came to be.
              In the past few years, most of my appearances have been about a new book I'm working on with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, the biography of her grandfather, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, who pretty much founded the American comics industry as we know it. And so it was this year. About 130,000 people attend that thing every year now. I'd guess that the great majority of them have little or no interest in comic books themselves. Even of the many thousands who do love comics, I'd say that only a few hundred are willing to go out of their way to attend a panel on the early history of the field. But those are the few hundred I want to be among.
       This year, our "Twisted Roots of Comics" panel was subtitled "Pulp Magazines and the Birth of the Modern Comics." I moderated, with my cowriter, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, to one side and three experts in their fields on the other: Nathan Vernon Madison, a historian of the pulps and author of Anti-Foreign Imagery in Pulps and Comic Books 1920-1960, Brad Ricca, author of the superbly researched and written Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Creators of Superman, and Michael Uslan, writer, producer, teacher, and a boy who still loves Batman. Here's the audio. If you get a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed doing it (even if it doesn't look like it in the pictures).

Friday, July 1, 2016

Living Silents

One of the highlights of my year, every year, is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It's also about the hardest of the things I love to describe adequately to other people. That the movies are hypnotically beautiful some people will believe, and more of them can understand that the live musical accompaniment is exciting and that the Castro Theatre is a spectacular showcase. What's difficult to convey, though, is that the showcase never feels like a museum. What we're celebrating never feels like a lost art form.
       For one thing, there's a quality of discovery for the vast majority of people in the audience, just because these movies are so rarely screened. I'd seen only two of the sixteen features at this year's festival, and several I'd never heard of. For another, the musicians are brilliant and innovative, entering living collaborations with the images on the screen that give new life even to movies I've seen before. But beyond that, there are new movies. One of the most exciting aspects of following the business of silent-film restoration is the fact that they keep finding films not seen in decades, films long thought lost
       Ever since I was a kid I've known of a Laurel and Hardy short called The Battle of the Century, famous for its monumental pie-fight sequence but surviving only in pieces. It was possible to see clips of it, but not the whole thing. But the pieces have been found in recent years, restored and assembled, and at this year's Silent Film Festival I got to sit there and watch that legendary movie whole for the first time.
       Another film shown this year, Behind the Door, had been known only in very incomplete form for several decades, and another, Mothers of Men, hadn't been shown anywhere in over ninety years. During "Tales from the Archives," the festival's annual presentation on what's up in the world of film restoration, came news of another great project in the world: a new edit of Abel Gance's monumental Napoleon, already restored to great fanfare a few years ago, that promises to bring it back, for the first time since its premier in 1927, to the director's original conception. I already spent a few years waiting for Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Napoleon, which finally arrived and more than pleased me in 2012. Now I get to wait a few more years for this one...and along the way, I know there will be more new discoveries from that extraordinary period of cinematic creativity, miraculously brought back to us from the past.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Happy Fathers' Day

My son is coming to spend the night, talking about taking me to a movie and dinner tomorrow. I’m guessing his girlfriend reminded him that it was Fathers’ Day, because it’s not the kind of thing he remembers on his own. Which is fine. I usually forgot to do anything for my own dad on Fathers’ Day unless my mom or my girlfriend reminded me. Half the time I forgot my parents’ birthdays when I was younger. For that matter, they forgot mine a couple of times. We’ve never been much for dates.
       When my dad was old, though, and I was middle aged, I remembered his birthday and Fathers’ Day every year. It wasn’t just that I’d grown more responsible or learned how to use a calendar, it was also that I knew the years I had with him were getting scarce. When he turned eighty I wrote him a long letter thanking him for being my father. It was an emotional time. His wife, my mother, was dying of cancer. A vast depression was closing in on him, and he was showing the first signs of dementia. I wanted to say everything I had thought about but never said while he could still hear it.
       He didn’t say much about the letter. That had always been his way: the more he felt, the less he said. For a while he said nothing at all about it, but finally he said one thing: “I’m glad you feel I was a good father to you. I never knew how to be a father. I didn’t have one, you know.” It was the first time I’d ever heard him speak of the early loss of his own father as anything other than a piece of biographical information, the first time I’d heard him acknowledge it as a loss. And although I’d often thought how his dad’s death must have shaped him, I’d never thought to apply it to his own role as my father. When my brother was born, he’d had to make it up as he went along, go with his gut, think about what he wished he’d had and try to be that himself. By the time I came along he’d had some practice, but I was such a different kid from my brother that a lot of it he had to make up all over again.
       Early in my life I thought he was a great father, and then there came some years when I thought more about how he’d fallen short than how he’d succeeded, and then I started to accept that he’d done okay after all. But it wasn’t until then that I realized what a miracle he’d pulled off. He’d had no father after the age of two—just a loveless, mentally unstable mother—and yet he had somehow shown up for me, year after year, challenge after challenge, with a steadiness I could count on and a love I never doubted.
       A few months ago I found myself at dinner with my son, one of the few times in the last couple of years it’s been just the two of us sitting across a table talking, with neither my significant other nor his in attendance, and I talked to him about some things I felt I’d gotten wrong as his father. He thanked me for it. Some of what I’d apologized for were things that had actually bothered him, and he appreciated the acknowledgement. Others were things he’d completely forgotten about or never even noticed. Over all, though, he said, he thought I’d done a really good job as a father. He said it simply and matter-of-factly. Nothing effusive. And it was neither my birthday nor Fathers’ Day. I could tell he was leveling with me.
       I was luckier than my own dad. I’ve had to make up a lot as I went along too. Sometimes I think it was only through a miracle that I got anything right. But I had a father to show me how to be one. I wish my dad had had the same, for his sake. But I’m awestruck and grateful at what he did without that.
       All right. My kid just walked in. Time to show up for him while he shows up for me. And in doing that, I can show up for my own dad too.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

In 1941, Ruth Atwood, a 16 year old in Rawlins, Wyoming, fell in love with a boy named Bobby Benson. The next year, he joined the Navy and was sent to the South Pacific. On board the USS Astoria, he made friends with a young Marine named Russell Jones. The Astoria went down in the Battle of Savo that August. Russell Jones survived. Bobby Benson didn’t.
       A few months later, Ruth Atwood went to stay with Bobby’s parents in Los Angeles, where they’d moved after their son had enlisted. Russell Jones, then stationed in San Diego, drove up to visit them and offer his condolences. He met Ruth there. They were drawn together by a shared grief, but as they spent time together other emotions grew.
       They were married in 1944. Thirteen years later, they wanted to name their second child after the young man whose death had brought them together. The family was already full of Bobbys and Bobs and Roberts, so they decided to give their new baby Bobbys middle name.
       I’m thinking today about Petty Officer Robert Gerard Benson, who died for his country and made my life possible.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RIP Darwyn Cooke

One of the nicest moments of my post-comics years came when Darwyn Cooke hollered my name and chased me down at a Toronto convention to let me know that Martian Manhunter: American Secrets, a mini-series I’d done with Eduardo Barreto and Brian Augustyn, had been one of his inspirations in creating his splendid DC: The New Frontier. It was my only direct contact with Darwyn, but it meant a lot to me.
       He was a brilliant cartoonist, a fine writer, and a good guy. He’ll be missed.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Say Hey

This afternoon I was building some Ikea furniture in my living room and heard the sound of a marching band coming from outside. Not something one normally hears in this part (or any part) of San Francisco. My wife realized it was probably coming from AT&T Park, Giants' stadium, which we live near.
       We went and stood on the balcony, and out of the percussive marching band racket we heard the horn section starting on the Birthday Song. Then a huge chorus of voices rose, muddy at first but then clearly resolving into Happy birthday, dear Willie.
       Willie Mays had turned 85.
       I wanted to put my hand over my heart or something. It was a great moment in a great town.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mort Weisinger

Mort Weisinger would have been 101 years old today. Even in his day, the comic books he edited were idiosyncratic, weirdly personal, always unlike anything anyone else was doing. Now, nearly fifty years after his editing days ended, theyre like relics of a lost medium. Emotional and gimmicky, richly developed and overstuffed with details but stubbornly childlike, frequently bizarre but always true to themselves, they were variations on the superheroic theme like nobody elses. And theyre still among my favorite pop-culture artifacts of all. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Superman, Philip Wylie, and Young Writers' Dreams

I was recently asked by Dover Books to write the foreword to their reissue of Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a book Ive long had an interest in as both a historian of comics and a general commentator on American culture and history. I find Wylie complicated and interesting to think about, and it was a fun piece to write. 

Of all the artistic legacies a person might earn, I think the most bittersweet is to be remembered only for having inspired someone else to do something better known. I imagine Cimabue would have been thrilled to know that art historians would still be talking about him seven centuries after his death, until he realized that they weren’t talking about him as the great painter of his age but only as the guy who may (or may not) have taught Giotto to paint. Would Max Linder, who committed suicide when he thought his movie career was washed up, have been pleased to know that his work would still be shown in occasional film festivals nearly a century later—if he’d had to listen to himself always described as the sadly forgotten comedian who inspired Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd? It’s a legacy that means future generations will still come back in time to look at your work, but they’ll never really see it for what you meant it to be. They’ll always see it through the eyes of some third party—very likely someone you resent for outshining you.
    Philip Wylie, in his prime years, would probably never have imagined that he’d be a candidate for such a fate, let alone that he’d be the man mainly responsible for creating it. From the mid-1930s through most of the 1950s, he had a remarkable run as a writer: bestselling books of social commentary, literary novels of decent reputation, science fiction thrillers that got turned into movies, and a constant presence in the Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. By 1963, however, when he agreed to be interviewed by the science-fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, the world’s attention was already clearly leaving him behind; which may be why he felt moved to complain so bitterly about how the creators of the comic strip Superman had stolen their idea from one of his early novels. He lived only another eight years, but by the time of his death, his own literary reputation was rapidly evaporating as Gladiator’s fame was rising among pop-culture historians in search of the hidden origins of the superhero.

    So it is that of all his forty or so published books, the only one in print is the one in your hand—not one of his bestselling, not one of his more highly regarded, not one of his personal favorites, but the one that was read by a teenager in Cleveland named Jerry Siegel, who borrowed some of its ideas to create a comic strip that Wylie considered a load of garbage.
    Siegel (and his artistic collaborator Joe Shuster) drew on far more than Wylie’s novel for the idea of Superman: the Doc Savage pulp magazines, a raft of other science fiction and fantasy stories, Douglas Fairbanks movies, Popeye, lots of things. But none of them have held the “missing link” glamor for comics historians that this odd little novel holds. A body of legends has grown up around the relationship between Gladiator and Superman, some spurious and some outright false (and some, to my enduring embarrassment, passed on in my own book, Men of Tomorrow). The truth is that Jerry Siegel never reviewed, or even mentioned, Gladiator in the fanzine he published in high school. If Wylie threatened to sue for plagiarism or Siegel signed affidavits claiming he’d never read the book, there is no record.

    What we do know for sure is that Siegel, in his unpublished autobiography, wrote that he “read and enjoyed Philip Wylie’s book Gladiator” and that, along with a great many other pop-culture items, “it influenced me, too.” (Courtesy of Thomas Andrae, author of Creators of the Superheroes.) We also know that there are many details shared by Gladiator and the first several months of Superman stories that are awfully hard to dismiss as coincidence. Most specifically, we know that the physical attributes of Wylie’s Hugo Danner—what we would now call his “superpowers”—were a unique combination at the time, and they were precisely, no more and no less, the same as those of the first incarnation of Superman.
    What Wylie did, essentially, was establish the “superhero” as we know it—or at least the superhero’s physical nature. He posited a rogue scientific experiment that gives a man unasked-for physical superiority: great muscular strength, the ability to leap vast distances and heights, tremendous running speed, and skin so tough that nothing less than an artillery shell could pierce it. Popular fiction was full of strongmen, and science fiction featured a few interplanetary characters who could jump high because of gravitational differences. But combining power with speed, creating a hero who could both lift and outrun a locomotive, was something new. We don’t usually see those two as going together (weight lifting isn’t in the decathlon), and the combination created a new template for across-the-board superhumanity. The addition of invulnerable skin cranked the idea up another notch. Hugo Danner was (to quote Will Murray’s excellent Gladiator of Iron, Man of Steel), “A quantum leap forward in the concept of the preternaturally-powerful protagonist.”
    Jerry Siegel gave Superman’s powers an extraterrestrial rather than chemical origin, but the powers themselves were the same as Danner’s; it would be a few years yet before Superman could fly instead of leap, longer still before he picked up x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the rest of it. Siegel also followed Wylie’s lead in suggesting that a man of such abilities could never fit in with normal humanity, that the rest of us could only make him an object of fear or curiosity, that many of us would try to find some way to exploit him for profit. But what Siegel chose to do with that realization was drastically different from what Wylie had done—and there opens the greatest difference between the characters, one that says a great deal about Philip Wylie and why his literary fate has been to play a supporting role in someone else’s origin story.
    He was born in Massachusetts in 1902, the eldest son of Edmund Melville Wylie, a Presbyterian minister of some renown. His relationship with his father was apparently difficult from early on, and he grew up defining himself in opposition to a certain kind of moral and conventional authority; he usually portrayed his father as intelligent but rigid, overly attached to his own righteousness, trapped in his own doctrine and ultimately hypocritical. Whatever mediating influence his mother might have brought ended with her death when Philip was five. His father remarried, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother.
    By his early teens, Philip was already striking dramatic postures of resistance to the worldview his elders were attempting to inculcate in him. “One evening during a thunder storm,” remembered his sister Verona Wylie Slater, Philip “was inspired to make an unholy experiment. He stood on a sloping rock, which jutted out into the lake near our summer home. Holding his face upward, he defied the Almighty to strike him with a bolt of lightning. The skies opened with a terrifying flash, but the bolt flew across the dark waters a mile away. We felt relieved, foolish, and very insignificant.” Wylie reconstructs that scene at a crucial moment in Gladiator, but in such a way that one is left suspecting that he felt less relieved than disappointed at being passed over by the divine wrath.
    Philip attended Princeton University, but in his third year he dropped out because of a conflict with a teacher. For a while he knocked around as a sailor, not the first bright young man who disliked authority to take up that job. Then he tried working in advertising and publishing, including some time on the editorial staff of the young New Yorker magazine, but it never took very long for him either to get fired or resign in frustration. So he staked his future on writing novels.
    The literary culture of the early 1920s provided a great deal of reinforcement for a young man with a desire to stand on metaphorical rocks during intellectual lightning storms. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the book of the age. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose shadow stretched over Princeton when Wylie was there) was being called a voice of the modern generation. D. H. Lawrence and James Branch Cabell were fighting battles with the censors (mainly New England Protestants greatly reminiscent of the Reverend Wylie), cheered on by H. L. Mencken. A young writer was expected to unmask society’s hypocrisy, destroy sentimentality with brutal honesty, fling himself against convention with a “romantic egoism.” He should advocate hard science and reject religion, immerse himself in Freud and know Nietzsche. And he should suffer. He should, as Wylie said of his protagonist in an introduction to one edition of Gladiator, “share the isolation of geniuses and with them…learn the inflexibility of man's slow evolution.”
    Gladiator was Wylie’s first novel, written in 1926, when he was twenty-four years old. He submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, H. L. Mencken’s publisher and a champion of challenging new fiction, who was taken with its author enough to buy it—but also leery enough to lay it on the shelf for a while and ask Wylie to write a more conventional novel to introduce himself to the world first. Ultimately, Gladiator would not be published until 1930, after Wylie had produced two novels based more or less on his own life, Heavy Laden and Babes and Sucklings, and in a rewritten form.

     I haven’t been able to discover anything about the original manuscript or how different it may have been from what saw print, but given Wylie’s complaint that Knopf pushed him to rewrite it “against my will and judgment,” I’m inclined to think that he did his best to preserve his original intent. Or let me put it this way: I find Gladiator much easier to appreciate if I read it as the creative eruption of an unpublished twenty-four year seized by a big idea than as the third novel of a twenty-eight year old who should have learned something from working with Alfred Knopf. Its charm is in its newness, its quality of discovery, and its painful, sometimes confusing collision of two very common but very different sorts of young male fantasy: breathtaking feats on the battlefield, the gridiron, and the public arena of crime and justice on the one hand; literary and intellectual acclaim on the other.
    In his childhood, Wylie was a great reader of H. G. Welles and other authors of those fantastical stories that would later be classified as “science fiction.” He came up with the idea for Hugo Danner (by his own report) while lamenting the inferiority of the human body to machines. He began speculating on what a man might do with a superhuman body, and if he’d been at a different point either in his own development of that of American fiction, he might have found his way to a fun adventure story, maybe something like one of Welles’s lighter novels, with a touch of social speculation or satire. By the time he reached his thirties, Wylie would demonstrate a comfort with that sort of storytelling, which contributed to his successful career. At twenty-four, however, pumping himself up for the solitary quest of the novelist, the temptation to climb onto that rock in the thunderstorm was just too great. Some years before his fellow Princeton alum, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Wylie concluded that a man like Hugo Danner “would be foredoomed to vulgar fame or to a life of fruitless destruction.” And he spent a book proving it.
    Jerry Siegel, born twelve years after Wylie, coming of age after American culture had mostly dismissed its Twenties as an embarrassing youth, comfortable with himself as a lover of pulp science fiction and Hollywood movies, had no interest in writing a tragedy. When he saw that his superman would never be able to function as a normal human being, he also saw the obvious solution: Clark Kent. His hopelessly isolated hero would put on a pair of glasses and wink his way through the great in-joke of pretending to be one of us. Siegel also understood that what most readers would want of such an outlandish hero was an equally outlandish message: that our great problems were simple enough to be solved by a man who could lift a car over his head. For the young Philip Wylie, such a compromise with “the cynical piddling of modern society,” by either the protagonist or the author, would have been the height of the very hypocrisy that he had committed himself to fighting.
    In the early 1930s, frustrated by his experiences with Knopf and serious fiction, Wylie turned his energies to making a living off what he called “a bumper crop of crap.” Two of the books from that period would provide still more inspiration to the spinners of fantastical adventures: The Savage Gentleman from 1932 clearly inspired the Doc Savage pulps, which in turn worked some influence on Superman and other comic-book heroes, while When Worlds Collide, cowritten with Edwin Balmer the following year, probably inspired Flash Gordon and perhaps also Superman’s interplanetary origin story.  Over the next several years, an entire industry of comic books, comic strips, movie serials, and licensed merchandise grew up around superheroes. Most of those were spun straight out of Superman and probably owed nothing directly to Wylie (although with some of them, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, a man transformed by an experimental serum into a very Danneresque super soldier, one has to wonder), but they all rested, to some degree, on the foundation of Gladiator.
    By that time, however, Wylie himself had moved on. He tackled serious fiction again in Finnley Wren, then donned his own heroic garb in an assault on American sentimentality and mediocrity via his 1942 collection of essays called Generation of Vipers. For some years, he was a prominent presence in book stores and magazines, almost a household name. Then he faded, while Superman and his brethren only grew more numerous, more famous, more artistically complex, and more central to our popular culture. 

     I’m glad we have this opportunity to look back at his contribution to the superheroes—but I also suspect Wylie would appreciate it if we could leave that behind for a moment and read this first novel of his for what it was before Jerry Siegel discovered it: the self-conscious but heartfelt roar of a young man of wild ideas and wilder ambition, climbing onto a rock in the lightning storm of the first decade of the modern world.

Monday, February 1, 2016

My Pal Splendid Man (more!)

Long ago, between our Beaver Papers and our Trouble with Girls, Will Jacobs and I started writing a series of short stories about the odd friendship of a young, would-be novelist named Will Jones and a superhero called Splendid Man. In part it was a tongue-in-cheek homage to the old comic books we loved, and in part it was a wry (and slightly autobiographical) look at the life and attitudes of an old-fashioned bookworm in the high-glamor Eighties. 
       We loved the stories but, life doing what it does, we didnt actually finish the book until about thirty years after wed first thought of it. Now, thanks to Atomic Drop Press, we are finally (just in time for the holidays!) releasing the complete My Pal Splendid ManLest the sample I ran last time gave the impression that the stories are all about Will and his splendid friend sitting around talking, heres a more action-filled sequence, the opening of the sixth story. If it intrigues you, you can find the whole thing wherever fine ebooks and print-on-demand books are sold.

Prisoner of Pox Pascal

Sometimes when my writing is going badly I like to torture myself by looking at the racks of paperback bestsellers. When I’m losing faith that I’ll ever be able to write another decent paragraph, let alone get published, I can’t resist the shot of envy and bitterness I get from scanning the glossy covers of all those Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo novels and thinking about the fortunes other writers have amassed by cleverly avoiding any sort of literary voice. Thus it was that I was striding into the foggy night toward the local 24-hour Walgreen’s, abandoning Chapter 68 of my latest novel about a man too passionate to fit into the everyday work world, eager to see what was new from Arthur Hailey or Michael Crichton or that literary immortal of the future, Stephen King.
        So intent was I on my own misery that I nearly crashed into the man standing on the street corner.  I jumped back and started to apologize.  Then I noticed his eyebrows.  Or, rather, his lack of same.
       “Pox Pascal!” I gasped. “What do you want with me?”
       “I want information that only you possess, Will Jones,” sneered the criminal mastermind.
       “I’ve got nothing to tell you,” I said.
       “I think I will be the judge of that, Will Jones.”
       “Judge away,” I said.  “But why do you think I’d cooperate with you?”
       “I have monitored you with my ultrascientific devices for months,” he said, “ever since you first became my enemy’s pal, waiting for the inevitable day when the stars would fall from your eyes like bolides and you would begin to see the flaws in the friend you once venerated!”
       “That’s ridiculous,” I said.  “Yeah, sure, he got on my nerves a little with that fake book stunt he pulled.  But there’s no one who doesn’t think Splendid Man is the greatest man in the world—and you’re the most nefarious!”
       “Really?  What about every citizen of the planet Poxor, where I am revered as a hero and your splendid pal is despised as a villain?” He moved a hand slightly, and in the air beside me appeared a giant plastic sphere, as big as my bathroom and as transparent as a soap bubble. “Won’t you join me on a trip to Poxor, Will Jones?  It might…broaden your horizons.”
       My hand snaked to my pocket and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb.  Let’s see the grinning fiend act so superior when Splendid Man came to my rescue, I thought.  Any second now, I thought.  Okay, I thought.  Any second…now?
       “A problem?” Pascal smirked.  “Is it your SOS Comb, perhaps, that isn’t working?”
       “You fiend,” I snarled. “You’ve no doubt rigged up a jamming device.”
  “Yes,” he chortled. “No doubt I have.”
     Before I knew what was happening, a hole had opened in the membrane of the bubble and Pascal had shoved me inside.  I found myself standing on an invisible floor within the odd vessel.  As I looked down through it, I saw the sidewalk receding beneath my feet.  We were taking to the air!  The rooftops and hills of San Francisco vanished as we gathered speed upward.
       I took a hard look at my companion, then.  The gleaming, hairless brows. The great crest of silver hair sweeping high above his head, as if to compensate for the naked forehead.  The penetrating blue gems of his eyes and the lips twisted with lifelong bitterness. The lab smock he always wore in case anyone should fail to recognize him as a scientific genius. I realized then what it was that this arrogant scoundrel must want from me, and I swore to myself that nothing, no bribery or coercion, could ever wring from Will Jones the truth of Splendid Man’s secret identity!
       I suddenly heard Pascal speaking. “There, before you! Poxor, the world I call my own!
       Sure enough, there was a planet looming into view as the bubble began to slacken its speed. Apparently I’d been so lost in my own angry thoughts that I’d spaced out on an entire lengthy journey through the vastness of the universe.  I hate it when I do that.
       “I imagine you know about the effects of greater gravitation and argon-free atmosphere on Earthlings,” he said, and slapped a tiny device on the back of my neck. “This device will radiate you with enough antigravitons to preserve your normal strength, while injecting enough argon into your bloodstream to prevent any unwelcome changes to your scrotum.”
       “You think of everything,” I said.
       “I’m a mastermind,” he said.  And with that, the membrane of the space bubble dissolved and we stepped out onto the veranda of Palace Pascal, the lone edifice rising from the vine-filled jungles of Poxor.
       “When I first came upon this planet, through a fortunate accident,” he was saying, “I found it entirely overgrown with these creepers and populated by a savage people. But upon further exploration I discovered the ruins of a great, hyperscientific civilization. Although no historical records remain of the civilization’s collapse, I can only surmise that the ignorant masses grew envious of the scientific elite and turned on them, heedless of the fact that their hubris would plunge them into ignorance and barbarism.”
       “More likely the elite tied itself to a short-sighted dependence on finite natural resources and ignored the need for a fair distribution of wealth and a solid foundation of social services,” I said.
       “Liberals,” he hissed. “Anyway.  What matters is that I alone had the know-how to bring the great devices of the past back to life and carve a new civilization out of the vines! I, Pox Pascal, became the savior of a world!”
       Sure enough, as he stepped to the edge of the stone veranda, a great roar went up from the plaza below.  There thousands of people in identical lab smocks bowed toward us chanting, “Pox!  Pox!  Pox!  Pox!  Pox!”
       “I’ll bet this is one of those times you wish your parents had given you a different name,” I said.
       “Any name is sweet when it is chanted in obeisance,” he said, with a sinister grin. “Imagine that this is a book signing at the American Booksellers Association Convention. Those peasants are the literature enthusiasts of Earth. And they’re chanting, ‘Will! Will! Will!’”
       I could see how this guy cut it as an evil mastermind. Sure, I knew I was being manipulated all the way. But I still felt my knees get weak at the thought.
      “I have influence with the New York publishing world, Will,” he said. “Do you not think there are criminal masterminds in the book business? How else do you explain the success of Sidney Sheldon? I can make things happen for you, Will.
       I pondered it. A multi-book deal. Maybe a National Book Award. An end to my temporary job waving a model-home sign on street corners. But I knew it couldnt be. “No thanks, I said. “I can become a literary success all by myself.
       He laughed derisively.
       “Okay. Then I’ll become a failure by myself.”
       He smiled, and I knew he could see through me. “Allow me to give you the tour of Palace Pascal, Will Jones.”
       He led me past the giant, blast-proof doors into his windowless sanctum sanctorum. On one wall were photographs of his heroic deeds as savior of Poxor, and on the opposite wall framed newspapers recording his dastardly deeds on Earth. Scattered everywhere were the fruits of his life of pillage: piles of jewels and stacks of cash, strange artifacts from many worlds, paintings by masters from Vermeer to Picasso.  Towering over all of it stood a line of giant statues of what I took to be his personal role models, the great plunderers of history. Attila the Hun. Hernán Cortés.  Blackbeard. Henry Kissinger.
       At a subtle move of his fingers, a mushroom-shaped flying chair cruised toward  me.  “Please, have a seat,” he said.  “We have much to discuss.”
      “Forget it,” I said, refusing to budge.  “Nothing will make me turn against my pal.”
      He made a noise with his tongue that might be best be rendered as, “Tsk tsk,” then added, “Don’t you see that you and I are of a kind, Will Jones?  We are men of intellect, men of culture.  Why should you give your loyalty to a man of simple physical might?”
       I sneered.  Pretty well, too, for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of practice sneering. “You’re trying to tell me that’s why you hate Splendid Man?”
      “I oppose him because I believe in the natural elite of the intellectual. Because I see through his phony democratism and moral absolutism.”
      “Really,” I said.  “Then it has nothing to do with…your eyebrows?”
       His eyes turned to stone.  “Then he admits that it was he who cost me my eyebrows?”
       “He says that’s been your tragic obsession, Pascal.  That while you were teenagers together in Turnipville, he used the heat setting of his Splendid Vision to burn away the spores of an alien mildew invasion and inadvertently singed your…”
       “Inadvertently!” Pascal raised a fist and roared in rage. “As if he couldn’t control his vision to the micron! Once I thought Splendid Boy and I might be allies, able to revel together in our superiority to the herd!  But when he burned away my eyebrows and left me a laughing stock at Turnip High, I knew the truth!  He was nothing but another high school jock tormenting the outcast brain! And it is high time you saw the truth too!”
        “Sorry,” I said. “Nothing you can do will ever induce me to reveal Splendid Man’s secret identity!”
        He rolled his eyes.  Which, from a guy without eyebrows, is a disconcerting sight. 

Continued in My Pal Splendid Man!