The Watchtower 4.05.04: The Greats

A couple weeks back in Who’s Who In The DCU, the column I co-inhabit with Mathan, we were both asked who we thought were the five most influential writers in the history of comics. For my list, I gave four guys and one duo that I thought had established the five definitive eras in comics with their creativity and innovations. I thought in today’s column I’d take a moment to expand on those initial observations by taking a deeper look at why I chose my five, as well who carried on their legacy on through today.

1. Gardner Fox

Biggest Accomplishments: Created The Sandman, Starman, Dr. Fate, The Flash and Hawkman during the Golden Age; created the Justice Society of America; created Adam Strange; re-tooled Hawkman and The Atom for the Silver Age; created the Justice League of America and wrote the first several years of the series; created the “Multiple Earths,” re-introducing Golden Age characters to DC continuity and creating characters like the Crime Syndicate

Why He Makes the List: Gardner Fox was the first writer to take the idea of scientific exploration and use it as a springboard for characters. Starman, The Flash and later the Silver Age Atom, were all scientists who gained extraordinary powers through technology. Looking back on the wealth of popular super-powered characters that have about since the Golden Age, so many, from Spider-Man to the Silver Age Flash to The Hulk and hundreds of others came about from the same core premise that Fox popularized, of science being a catalyst for super-heroics. More than just using science, Fox understood it; though the circumstances that led to Jay Garrick gaining super-speed, Ray Palmer being able to shrink, or people being able to travel to alternate dimensions using vibratory patterns, were not feasible in the real world, they were all grounded in solid scientific theory that Fox took great pains to research, understand, and incorporate into his stories.

Fox also looked beyond the stars and into outer space for exotic locales in which to base his work. Superman and later The Martian Manhunter, Silver Surfer and others were super-powered aliens whose adventures took place on Earth, but Fox’s Adam Strange was one of the first human characters to fully explore another world. Later writers for DC and Marvel would actually develop the homes of alien races they’d introduce, rather than just have the aliens come to Earth; from this we got Superman’s Krypton, the Surfer’s Zenn-La, the homeworlds of the Skrull and Sh’iar, and many more.

Perhaps what Fox is most remembered for is his role in establishing the comic book landmark, the team book. As the creator of both the Justice Society of America and their successors the Justice League of America, Fox set the precedent for later supergroups like the Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Teen Titans and more. Fox also created storytelling conventions like splitting the team into smaller groups to focus on different characters and breaking up the story into chapters, a tactic writers still use today. Fox also created Earth-2, bringing DC’s Golden Age characters into the Silver Age, and later established other Earths like Earth-3, home of the villainous Crime Syndicate, and laid the eventual seeds for Crisis On Infinite Earths.

Gardner Fox belongs on the list because he was an innovator.

His Legacy: Writers like Grant Morrison and Mark Waid, who have both incorporated science into their runs on JLA, The Flash and recently on New X-Men (Morrison) and Fantastic Four (Waid). Geoff Johns, who not only utilizes Fox-created characters and a Fox-created concept on JSA, but has also utilized many of the team dynamic strategies Fox innovated both on that title and on Avengers and Teen Titans. Roy Thomas, Roger Stern, Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman and others who made their marks working on Fox-esque team books, not to mention Denny O’Neil, Fox’s immediate successor on Justice League of America.

2. Stan Lee/Jack Kirby

Biggest Accomplishments: Created The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, The Silver Surfer and many others; created The Avengers; revived Golden Age characters Captain America and Namor for the Silver Age; (Lee) created Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange and others; (Kirby) co-created Captain America in the Golden Age, created The New Gods

Why They Make the List: Together, they created the Marvel Universe and revolutionized a dying art. I could probably write an entire column on why either Lee or Kirby deserve to top this list, let alone be on it.

The Fantastic Four was a landmark in comic book history perhaps without equal aside from the creation of Superman. Up until FF, super-heroes were invariably smiling and infallibly virtuous or dark and threatening creatures of the night; they were also larger than life, even those without powers. The Fantastic Four were the first characters to act and interact in a way that real people could relate to. Stan & Jack, from the first issue of FF on, set a precedent that every comic to follow would have to at least attempt to adhere to or be rendered antiquated in the eyes of many readers.

The capacity for imagination between the collaborators was limitless. Within years, colorful characters that transcended every genre within comics populated the Marvel Universe. Each Lee/Kirby creation has their own personality; a stark contrast to other company’s heroes, who had interchangeable dialogue and methods of operation. After they had built up a husky stable of titles, Lee & Kirby went nary an issue of any book without introducing some incredible menace for the heroes to take on, or some exciting guest star to aid the protagonists. It’s no slight exaggeration to say that Lee & Kirby did create enough characters just in a few years to realistically inhabit a universe.
Together, Lee & Kirby would explore themes comics had never touched, like issues of abuse and isolation (The Hulk) and racism (The X-Men), and draw upon centuries old mythologies with greater vigor and success than any of their predecessors (Thor).
Separately, Lee and Kirby accomplished things that most creators would kill third string Avengers for. With artistic collaborator Steve Ditko, Lee imagined Spider-Man, who went the Fantastic Four one better by being a teenager, the target audience of comic books; Peter Parker would go down in history as being the first character the audience could really identify with. With other artists, Lee imagined unique creations like Daredevil, a blind superhero whose other senses were enhanced, and Iron Man, a billionaire inventor playboy who donned a suit of armor after shrapnel was embedded in his heart and he was forced to wear an iron chest piece to stay alive. Kirby created epics like The New Gods and The Eternals, concepts whose scope transcended the comic book medium, and whom later creators would bring back time and time again, though they would never quite nail them the same way “The King” did.

But Lee & Kirby’s greatest strength, besides their boundless imaginative spirits, was in establishing the first true writer-artist partnership in which both men contributed to the creative process on both ends, as a result producing the most fully realized works of all-time.

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby belong on the list because I haven’t even scratched the surface of their accomplishments.

Their Legacy: Pretty much every writer or artist who has ever worked on a Marvel character (or on the New Gods). Seriously. More specifically, writer-artist teams that also served as co-plotters like Chris Claremont & John Byrne and Marv Wolfman & George Perez owe a lot to Lee & Kirby. But, seriously, there are very few major writers who haven’t worked on a Stan Lee creation or artists who haven’t incorporated, at least subconsciously, a bit of Jack Kirby into their work.

3. Denny O’Neil

Biggest Accomplishments: Followed Gardner Fox on Justice League of America and revitalized the series; wrote some of the first and most socially-relevant stories in history in Green Lantern/Green Arrow; brought Batman back to its dark roots and saved its commercial viability; made bold changes to the Wonder Woman and Superman franchises

Why He Makes the List: As the immediate successor to Gardner Fox on Justice League of America, Denny O’Neil had some near impossible shoes to fill. He did so by using the classic story-telling devices Fox had made famous on the title respectfully, bringing in some of the more human characteristics and team dynamics that Marvel had perfected, and putting his own distinct finishing touch. The result was O’Neil becoming the pre-eminent DC writer of the late 1960s and 70s.

That “distinct finishing touch,” the principal reason O’Neil makes this list, was the use of political and social “real world” issues in stories to a degree that they had never been explored before, but more on that in a moment. O’Neil was not a one trick pony who could only writer about politics, he also was a masterful storyteller who could write anything from a sci-fi epic involving the Justice League taking on alien invaders to the sweet burgeoning love story between Green Arrow and Black Canary; he succeeded with the former because he had the capability to imagine, the latter because he knew how to tell a story as if it were real life. O’Neil was also the first writer to portray the members of the League as having distinct personalities that would often be at odds with one another (the most famous example being the liberal Green Arrow clashing with the conservative cop Hawkman), something both later writers of JLoA and those chronicling the solo adventures of Superman, The Flash and the rest would pick up on and use.
But it was those stories about superheroes confronting what was happening in the real world in the socially conscious 70s that left O’Neil’s mark on the comic book world.

Without question, O’Neil’s most famous work was Green Lantern/Green Arrow (Green Lantern’s solo title was converted into a duo book at O’Neil’s behest), the series of stories affectionately remembered as “Hard Traveling Heroes.”

O’Neil took Green Arrow, who had previously been a Batman clone, a millionaire playboy with a young ward and a knack for archery, and transformed him into the voice of the liberal youth of the 1970s. O’Neil had GA losing his fortune as a result of corruption within the business world he hovered at the edge of, and, as a result, gain a social conscience, becoming aware of the dirty tactics at work in many aspects of the business and political worlds, and find himself sympathizing with the liberal sect of America, who distrusted the government and big business and pushed for equality between races (of course, Ollie being a ladies man flew somewhat against the whole equal rights kick, but O’Neil got good mileage out of things like that, showing that as passionate as Ollie was about his liberal beliefs, he didn’t fully “get” the people he was supposedly representing). In Hal Jordan, DC’s second Green Lantern, O’Neil found the perfect straight man for GA (note “straight man,” not “foil,” that was Hawkman). Hal, in a sense, represented everything Green Arrow and the liberals were against: he was a cop on an interstellar scale. But Hal Jordan was, at heart, for all his confidence and bravado, a very young man who didn’t know his place in the world, especially when it came to matters of politics; Green Arrow set out to find it for him.

And so the duo embarked on a cross-country tour in a beat up pickup truck to “find America.” Along the way they would battle super-villains, explore different aspects of American society and eat chili; it was the ultimate buddy movie. The duo would encounter issues involving war, racism, drugs and other hot button issues that had been touched on here and there in some comics, but never with the attention that O’Neil gave them. O’Neil walked a fine line between being informative to a generation of comic fans who may not have been up on their politics and being preachy, but he walked it with skill. Though on the surface GL/GA could have easily seemed a liberal platform, that was never the case; O’Neil may have given more air time to liberal views than conservative ones, but he never painted them as being right without question, and a big part of “Hard Traveling Heroes” was Green Arrow realizing that his liberal outlook didn’t have the answers for everything.

In two of the more memorable GL/GA storylines, both protagonists found themselves blindsided by their cocky assurance that they did indeed have all the answers. The first was when his ward, Roy Harper (aka Speedy and later Arsenal of the Teen Titans) was revealed to be addicted to heroin. O’Neil handled the story with an almost uncomfortable realism; GA couldn’t deal with his own failure to see the warning signs and withdrew, leaving GL and Black Canary to help Roy find the strength to overcome his addiction. In another memorable episode, Green Lantern found himself the target of his own shortcoming when the duo encountered a black man who uttered a classic accusation at GL about all the alien races he helped with different skin colors, yet neither he nor any of his peers did anything to combat racism. O’Neil had both Green Arrow and Green Lantern coming of age politically and socially and the readers along with them.

Besides his work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, O’Neil also showed a penchant for being able to revive once prosperous characters who had fallen on hard times commercially either by getting back to the root of the character or giving them a radical revamp. O’Neil found himself assigned to all three of DC’s “big three” of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman at times when the characters were stagnating. With Wonder Woman, he had the character lose her powers and explored feminist ideas; it was a bold move and eventually the character returned to status quo, but the run was seen as groundbreaking. With Superman, O’Neil took away some of the character’s more ridiculous powers and brought renewed attention to Clark Kent, moving him from the Daily Planet to a job as a television newscaster; again, O’Neil’s changes didn’t last long, but John Byrne would end up using many of his ideas in his successful revamp of the character in 1986. With Batman, O’Neil cut past many of the cartoonish elements the character had accumulated to parallel his television show in the 60s and restored him to his roots, allowing his titles to survive the 70s and prosper in the 80s when men like Frank Miller would continue looking to the past for inspiration.

Denny O’Neil belongs on the list because he dared to push the envelope.

His Legacy: Writers like Joe Kelly and Joe Casey, who infuse a healthy dose of politics and business into their work. Kevin Smith, Brad Meltzer and Judd Winick, all of whom have found success working with the Green Arrow character O’Neil refined. Anybody who has worked on Batman since the 70s.

4. Alan Moore

Biggest Accomplishments: Revived horror and fantasy comics in Saga of the Swamp Thing and created the character of John Constantine (the feature character of Hellblazer); wrote the last Superman story before the Crisis reboot, considered to this day one of the best stories ever written about the character; wrote the groundbreaking Watchmen; wrote the definitive Joker story in Batman: The Killing Joke; wrote the critically-acclaimed Jack the Ripper biography From Hell, which was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp; created The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was made into a movie starring Sean Connery; created the “America’s Best Comics” line, which includes Tom Strong and Promethea

Why He Makes the List: During the 1980s, when DC was redefining itself with Crisis On Infinite Earths and Marvel was riding the wave of mutant success, Alan Moore snuck in and redefined the comic book medium with a little book called Watchmen.

Watchmen was something that, for the most part, comic book fans had never seen before. It took the concept of the superhero and tore it apart. Heroes made murky moral decisions, killed people, turned bad…basically superheroes did something they had never done before: failed. Watchmen was about questioning the government and other power structures just as Green Lantern/Green Arrow had done, but with Watchmen, you were never quite sure who the good guys were. In many ways Watchmen was the logical next step in the twenty year journey started by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to make superheroes more like real people you’d encounter in your every day life, but unlike Spider-Man failing to stop the burglar and then vowing to use his powers for good, characters in Watchmen would fail to use their powers for good and then let it ruin them, drive them into exile, or turn them to the other side. Every shades of grey vigilante from Watchmen on owes something to Rorshach; every god-like character who removes himself from human affairs owes something to Dr. Manhattan; every good guy who went over to the dark side for reasons only he saw as noble owes something to Ozymandias; every underdog heroes with human limitations owes something to Night Owl. Watchmen was powerful, groundbreaking and trend setting.

Watchmen alone would probably be enough to get a writer on the list, it (along with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”) more or less set the tone for an entire decade plus of comics and still reverberates today and was also the forerunner for pieces like Kingdom Come, but Watchmen was hardly Alan Moore’s only contribution to the comic book medium.

Moore is considered the father of the Vertigo line of comics. His work on Swamp Thing was the first “mature reader” comic that was successful enough to succeed in the mainstream, as opposed to gaining a cult following on the independent circuit. Along the way, Moore created popular anti-hero John Constantine and embarked on a landmark tour of questioning religion, politics, and just about everything in between.

Lest you think Moore’s talent was restricted to projects outside mainstream superheroes, he left his mark on the two biggest in the game in Superman and Batman.
Moore was given the honor or writing “The Last Superman Story,” a futuristic hypothetical two parter putting an end to the Superman legend before he was rebooted by Crisis. The story was emotionally intense, as Superman’s foes learned his true identity and revealed it to the world then embarked on a brutal series of attacks on him and his friends; there was a poignant beauty and palpable sadness as Superman fought as hard as he could against impossible odds and found himself losing more than winning; it also incorporated almost every major villain and supporting character the Man of Steel had faced in his long career and featured amazing twists all the way to the end. It is the story many professionals say made them like Superman as a character and rightfully so.

Moore wrote the definitive Joker origin in “Batman: The Killing Joke,” a story that has ramifications on the Batman universe to this day. The story showed The Joker at his most manically sadistic, crippling Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon (the current Oracle) for no reason other than to drive her father Commissioner Jim Gordon insane and prove that anybody can go nuts with the wrong breaks, but it also revealed a hereto forth sympathetic side of the villain, flashing back to his days as a struggling comedian and showing how he fell into the unfortunate series of events that made him The Joker trying to provide for the love of his life. The two stories run parallel and make you feel bad for The Joker even as you curse him for his actions and wait for Batman to take him down. The story also takes a closer look at the Joker-Batman relationship and features a memorable conclusion.

During the 90s and on into the present day, Moore’s work using real-life and classic literary characters has gained him the acclaim of the comic book world and the attention of the cinematic world. His work From Hell, chronicling events surrounding Jack The Ripper was made into a film with Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was one of the most unique ideas in comic book history: taking famous literary characters like Allan Quartermain, Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker and the Invisible Man and making them into a Victorian version of the Justice League of America. The two mini-series were a treat for lovers of literature and comics alike and the concept was made into a big budget action film starring Sean Connery.
Alan Moore’s greatness is not limited by boundaries of genre or even time; for three decades his work across the board has rarely drawn a bad review. He’s come up with concepts and ideas that other never would have even thought of.

Alan Moore belongs on the list because he did no wrong…oh yeah, and changed comics forever.

His Legacy: Anybody who has gotten their big break in the comic book field through Vertigo, including Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Brian Azzarello, Brian K. Vaughan and countless others. Writers of mainstream mature readers comics like J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Millar. I could go on.

5. Kurt Busiek

Biggest Accomplishments: Wrote the acclaimed fully-painted Marvels series that put painted Alex Ross on the map; wrote the sleeper hit Untold Tales of Spider-Man; created Astro City; revived the Avengers and Iron Man franchises; personally selected by artist George Perez to write the twenty-years-in-the-making JLA/Avengers

Why He Makes The List: Comics went to a very dark place in the 1990s, and Kurt Busiek was instrumental in bringing it back.

Busiek’s first high profile work was Marvels, the four issue-limited series fully painted by future superstar Alex Ross. The series looked at the major events of the Marvel Universe’s Silver Age from the point of view of average joe photographer Phil Sheldon. Ross’ art got much of the attention, but it was impossible to ignore Busiek’s story, which brought back a sense of wonder Marvel, and comics as a whole, had lost in recent years. It was also an intensely character driven story, a throwback to comics’ richest work after years of big guns, never-ending mysterious sub-plots and high profile deaths.
Busiek followed up Marvels with Untold Tales of Spider-Man, another retro book featuring stories set between the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man. The book gained a cult following and enjoyed surprising success, proving once again that the old formula of well-told stories with characters the reader cared about could work.

But probably Busiek’s greatest feat was taking over Avengers in 1998 and taking the title to heights it had never before seen. Teamed with artist supreme George Perez, Busiek focused on the franchise’s storied history and told fun stories about great characters, not weighed down by the grim and gritty style or gimmicks that had marred the past decade of the comic book industry. Busiek did not shy away from traditional aspects that some newer fans might have considered “hokey,” he embraced them, and he did it so well that slowly but surely, the fans did too. Avengers became the top-selling title in comics for the first time in its history and paved the way for traditional super hero books like JLA and JSA to become successful.

On the side, Busiek also created Astro City, another character driven series looking at a world with a large superhero population and focusing on different situations everyday people and superheroes face.

Busiek would remain on Avengers for over fifty issues. He just last week completed a dream mini-series with Perez, JLA/Avengers. Busiek was the guy to come along at a time when comics were very shallow and at the same time very confusing and restore them by making them fun again. He wasn’t concerned with appealing to the Vertigo fan or the people who sneered at comics but thought Neil Gaiman’s work was genius, he was concerned with appealing to the people who thought it was cool to read about a man who put on a colored costume and did the right thing.

Kurt Busiek belongs on the list because he saved comics (seriously).

His Legacy: Most of the big name writers in comics today, from Geoff Johns to Brian Michael Bendis to Jeph Loeb to Mark Waid probably wouldn’t be enjoying the success they currently enjoy if not for Kurt Busiek. He made big fun superhero fare the standard again and also brought character-driven stories back to the fore.

Number 6 with an asterisk

Steve Ditko: Because he was Stan Lee’s Jack Kirby on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange and because he created some really cool concepts like Hawk & Dove that never quite worked under anybody but him.

Chris Claremont/John Byrne: Because they crafted the first truly superstar run on a comic and told some of the greatest epics of all-time.

Frank Miller: Because he changed comics in the 80s along with Alan Moore and because he made comics about real life interesting with work like 300 and Sin City.

Marv Wolfman/George Perez: Because they raised the bar with New Teen Titans and changed the DCU forever with Crisis.

Peter David: Because nobody writes humor comics better.

Mark Waid: Because he was right there on the front lines with Kurt Busiek to revive the industry and because Kingdom Come was a work of art from the writing end too.

Honorable Mention…just because

Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane & Bill Finger: …do you really need to ask?

Got your own opinions? I’d love to hear them. Toss me an e-mail or visit my thread in the 411 forum.

Next week: hopefully Supremacy pt. 2, looking at the Squadron Supreme maxi-series