I got to see the movie billed as Batman versus Superman the other day.
I won’t spoil anything here but I do suggest you see the film with someone who knows something about the heroes and villains of DC comics. More fun than the movie itself will be debating whether the plot lines work, whether the story holds up to scrutiny, whether the super powers displayed so fantastically on the big screen make any sort of sense.
“So, if Batman doesn’t have any super strength, and Superman punches him, why doesn’t his head just pop right off his body?”
“Is Kryptonite deadly to Superman or not?”
“What the heck is Wonder Woman’s lasso made of?”
Discussing these MIND-BOGGLERS takes COMMITMENT! COURAGE! CHUTZPAH! Those who choose to do so must brave the QUINTESSENTIAL QUAGMIRE of QUIZZICALITY!
ENTER THIS ENIGMA! at your own risk!
Remember those wonderful warnings and commands that jumped in all capital letters from the pages of comics when you were a kid? I remember being stumped by the word “enigma” from a Spiderman comic, while my oldest sister was standing nearby. She saw me looking for the dictionary and stopped me. She taught me the definition by challenging me to figure it out from the context. I was about 9 years old.
I was never “puzzled” by “enigma” again.
Lots of vocabulary sleuthing would follow over the years, and lots of debate over the characters, plot, even the way the heroes were drawn.
After the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie, we (my daughter, wife and our foreign student) wrangled over which scene confused the most or needed the most propping up. Later, I heard my wife (who prefers books over comics) on the phone asking our son in Seattle about the movie and getting a detailed rundown of various superpowers harbored by DC Comics characters.
She looked like she was sorry she asked.
For me, the discussion after the movie took me back to my time as a kid when my friends and I dissected comic books religiously. We looked for flaws in plots. We debated who would win in a fight. (Always bet on the Hulk. Crazy beats strong every time.) We actually tried to write to the comic book authors, trying to get a letter published.
Yes, all DC and Marvel comics at one time had letters sections. They were back by the ads, the ones selling hot pepper bubble gum, The Book of 1,001 insults and “How to stop muscle-heads at the beach from kicking sand in your face, you 98-pound weakling!”
The published letters would sometimes applaud the comic artists and writers. But, similar to newspaper letters, these missives would also complain, or ask pointed questions.
“OK, so if Spiderman shoots webbing by using his fingers against his palm, how come it doesn’t shoot out when he makes a fist?” Or, “Issue 558 had Jimmy Olsen with a blue briefcase. When did he get that red one he was carrying in Issue 567?”
My buddies and I had high hopes to get a letter published to show how smart we were. Plus, the comics writers and editors responded to questions with sass. They were smart alecks. It was really cool to catch them in a mistake.
Also, we really really really wanted to win a “No Prize.”
What’s that? you ask. Unless you loved Marvel Comics in your youth, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.
The “No Prize” was an ingenious idea.
If a comics reader offered a significant criticism, he or she got a certificate back saying an editor had chosen you as the recipient of a No Prize.” It was just that — nothing but a certificate. No free comics. Not even a discount coupon on that BODYBUILDING BONANZA BOOK! back on page 22.
Still, everyone wanted one.
They gave you notoriety. You got your name printed in the letters section, with an explanation of how you had corrected the writers or artists. Sometimes, Marvel also awarded a No Prize to readers who offered the writers or artists a way to explain away goofs.
For example, a hero with the power to turn invisible disappears, while carrying a giant diamond. The gem is nowhere to be seen in the comic panel. Well, how did the diamond also disappear? It didn’t have the power to turn invisible, a No Prize winner pointed out.
As a fix, the writer suggested the followup issue explain that the hero was not the one with invisibility in his arsenal. He was the one who could shrink himself to the size of an ant, while still possessing super strength. Of course, he just ran away with the gem. Duh!
My good buddy and I came close to a No Prize a couple times but we were too slow. Stuff we noticed — for example a character whose middle name mysteriously changed in only one panel — ended up discovered by someone else before we could write in.
Sadly, I never realized my childhood dream of getting my name published in the same comic as one of my favorite, powerful, benevolent superheroes.
Not as a kid anyway.
It took decades. I finally hit the bigtime.
I was 29.
A comic book artist captured my image in pen and ink and put me (yes, my real first and last names) on pages 1 and 3 of Action Comics 567, a DC Superman issue.
I got to speak to the Man of Steel and shake his hand. I traded some witticisms with Lois Lane, too, as she made fun of me for working as a reporter in a smaller town than her.
So how’d that all happen?
Not how you might be thinking. No, I was not one of those nerds who collected a gazillion comics, read them over and over, kept them sealed in my attic and wrote letter after letter to Stan Lee begging to have my name in a comic book. No, I also did not pay extra for an issue made just for me.
I actually made it into a real, publicly circulated Superman comic book. It was part luck and part skill. Being a dogged news reporter in real life also helped.
Here’s what happened.
It was the mid-’80s and I worked for the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise, a tough, fun and well-edited small newspaper in central Pennsylvania that covered the Town of Bloomsburg and nearby. Part of that nearby was the beleagured Borough of Centralia, where an underground minefire burned for decades.
I got assigned to help report on a $42 million government buyout of residents who wanted to move, after the feds decided those residents deserved a break. It was a serious story and I wrote lots of copy about it, especially after a group of “stayers” decided the government was all wet and too late, arguing the minefire had moved away from Centralia.
There were lots of raucous town meetings, records to pore through and even some fraud.
When Superman entered the picture, I welcomed the chance the chance to do a lighter story with a Centralia dateline.
Action Comics 558 hit the stands in the summer of 1984. In it, writer Bob Rozakis decided a fictional Pennsylvania old coal mining town (of, well, gee, how about naming it Coaltown?) needed Superman to save it from an underground mine fire. Rozakis had seen a short news story about Centralia as inspiration.
Someone at our paper saw the comic and we saw the fun in writing a feature story about it. We also decided Centralia residents might want the chance to comment on their nettlesome and expensive problem being solved with Superman’s heat vision. The Man of Steel needed fewer than two pages of a 25-page comic to choke out a fire that government scientists could not douse for decades, no matter how hard they tried.
Comments from Centralians and ex-Centralians helped me write a cool little tale. It had a bit of friction, too, because some residents criticized the comic’s author and artist. The residents were penned to look like were stuck in the ’40s. They looked like rubes, they complained. At least one also lamented that DC Comics had become the latest to “cash in” on the minefire disaster.
I needed to find the writer, Rozakis, to get his side. But that proved more difficult than I had hoped. He wasn’t at his office. He wasn’t even in the country. But, I persisted, and found him, at a restaurant in Montreal.
This was before cell phones, mind you. To get to Rozakis, I had to: 1) find someone who knew where he was; 2) find someone else who happened to be with him and wore a pager; 3) hope that person gave Rozakis a message to call me back; and 4) hope for that crucial call-back.
Surprisingly, that all worked. I scrambled a lot like that when I was a reporter. Make a bunch of calls, throw out the net, drop a lot of lines in the water, hope for a bite.
Rozakis would later write to me to say: “By the way, editor Julius Scwhartz and I have voted you the Clark Kent Award for Determined Journalism for the way you tracked me down in Montreal.”
In fact, he was so impressed with the paper’s story and coverage, as well as the pride and grit of the people of Centralia, that he decided to actually go there and talk with residents. Superman would likely return to Coaltown for “Superman Day,” he said, though he didn’t share a lot of detail.
Fast-forward to Spring 1985, when a package from Rozakis arrived at my home. There I am in Action Comics 567, in Coaltown, covering a dedication of a Superman statue.
“Hey Bob, you didn’t ask if you could put me in the comic,” I later told him.
His retort: “You didn’t ask if you could quote me for your story.”
After my auspicious comics debut, I was feeling pretty special.
I had people asking me stuff about Superman like “Did he hurt your hand when he shook it?”
I wrote a column for the paper about meeting the Man of Steel. I included what I thought was a clever joke about worrying if my underwear were clean. (Ya know, Xray vision and all.) In the column, I pondered threatening to reveal Superman’s secret identity if he didn’t fix other stuff in the Bloomsburg area. The column ended with me blabbing so much that Rozakis erased my mouth.
For the first time after years of reading comic books, I used one of those plastic covers to protect this one. My claim to fame.
Rozakis later brought me down a peg or two. He told me my comic book appearance wasn’t that special. “I’ve put most of my friends, neighbors and relatives in stories at one time or another.”
Yeah, but how many get to actually talk to Superman, shake his hand? Meet Lois? I asked.
Quite a few, he said. Some actually got to hang on to his cape and fly. Some were used as villains. Some were given special powers.
Wow. Way to BURST MY BUBBLE OF BRAVADO, BOB!!!
Still, I’m not sure I believe him.
I think he was dishing out some payback for me tracking him down in Montreal, interrupting his lunch.
After all, it’s been 30 years and I haven’t yet run across anyone else who met a pen-and-ink superhero.
If you know differently, just keep it to yourself, eh? I’d really like to keep my notoriety a little while longer. Besides, if you do prove me wrong, what good will it do ya? What’s in it for you?
It’s not like you’re going to win a No Prize. Trust me, those suckers are almost impossible to get.