Writer, Editor, Author

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A Comics Compulsion to Learn the Truth About the Original ‘Secret Six’

I've long wanted to get back to writing about comics on this blog.

I've been especially inspired of late by the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube. If you like comics and aren't watching this, I highly recommend you check it out now! The channel is run by Pittsburgh-based cartoonists Jim Rugg ("The Plain Janes," "Street Angel," "Aphrodisiac") and Ed Piskor ("Hip-Hop Family Tree," "X-Men: Grand Design"), and they run through a lot of great comics history and interview some of the real greats of the business in a unique way. What strikes a chord for me is the channel's love of comics as comics — not corporate IP being held in check for an eventual movie — this is just about comics and the work that's on the page. And they also understand that comics are best when they are a subversive medium, and so the focus is often on the most critically acclaimed works, like Alan Moore's "Miracleman," and the best indie comics of yesteryear and today. It's the sort of thing that makes you long for the days when you had hours to spend diving through quarter bins at your local comic shop or convention to find those treasures that the speculator crowd (which seems to have made a big return of late) would never pick up or understand.

This approach has definitely affected my comics reading of late and I've been thinking more and more about those hidden gems and wild, almost-forgotten experiments. So up first is a short-lived DC Comics series from more than 50 years ago that I'd long wanted to check out and finally have: "Secret Six."

My introduction to "Secret Six" came not in the pages of any comic, but a book about comics. "The Comic Book Heroes," published in 1985 and written by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, was extremely influential on me.

The Comic Book Heroes
Cover to "The Comic Book Heroes," by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. Published by Crown Publishers in 1985.

I first saw a copy shortly after my family had relocated to Arizona, on a shelf in the back of a Waldenbooks outlet in Paradise Valley Mall. I lacked the cash to fork over the $11.95 cover price as I preferred at the time to put my limited expendable resources into buying comic books themselves. But I seemed to spend a lot of time at the mall and was able to read a decent portion of the book before it was bought by someone else or remaindered.

I didn’t acquire my own copy until 1989, when I was a journalism student at the University of Arizona and found a copy at Bookman’s, a huge used bookstore that to this day remains one of my favorite places ever to just hang out. I know I read it more than once, probably more than twice in the first few months I owned it.

This was a book that really put into perspective the comic book industry I knew. The books on comics I had previously found in libraries and bookstores focused almost exclusively on the Golden Age, an era that at the time seemed far away and completely inaccessible without access to the tons of cash that would be required to become well-read in any part of that era. Jacobs and Jones instead started with the Silver Age, running up comprehensively through the 1970s and putting an early spin on the heady expansion of the direct market in the 1980s up to the book’s publication.

The book also was vastly entertaining, examining the content of the most impactful stories of those times and also talking about the creators and the business goings-on behind the books. While Silver Age books also were mostly beyond my budget, "The Comic Book Heroes" nonetheless sparked an interest in reading and experiencing the comics its authors wrote about with love, passion and knowledge.

Chapter 18 is titled “The DC Experiment,” and devotes eight pages of text and two pages reproducing interior pages from "The Hawk and the Dove" #5 and "Secret Six" #4. The book covers what the authors write is an intense period of experimentation that came about after the Kinney Corporation conglomerate bought DC in 1967 and added it to its roster of funeral homes and parking services. Run by Steve Ross, Kinney would soon acquire Warner Communications and bring DC under its umbrella. But first, the new management had to face of sluggish sales and the rising threat of Marvel.

Seeking an editorial director who could unite the fiefdoms that editors like Mort Weisinger and Julie Schwartz had long rule, DC’s new owners tapped freelance artist turned DC cover editor Carmine Infantino for the job. Infantino’s experience as an artist instead of a writer or businessman made him an unusual choice, and he quickly took advantage of the new role to bring in veteran artists as editors and let them loose to innovate some new titles. Among those new editors was Dick Giordano, who had previously been executive editor at Charlton Comics when it was putting out some of its better titles, like "Captain Atom," "Blue Beetle" and "The Question."

The titles comprising the DC Experiment of the chapter’s title included short-lived but well-regarded series such as "The Creeper," "The Hawk and the Dove," "Bat Lash" and, of course, "Secret Six." Jacobs and Jones wrote an entire page on "Secret Six," noting the obvious inspiration of the hit TV series "Mission: Impossible" before spending a pair of lengthy paragraphs explaining the premise, characters, and how the series’ relatively realistic tone eschewed aliens and superpowers for an approach flavored with gritty pulp elements. They hail the “excellent quality of the strip” and lament that its short, seven-issue run failed to resolve the main premise, which as of that writing had yet to be revisited.

So with all that running around in your head, how could you not want to read this comic?

It took many years for me to acquire the seven-issue run, mostly picked up whenever I stumbled across one in a comic shop or convention bargain bin. I finally finished the run last year, and even more miraculously managed to assemble all seven issues in one place so I could read them.

And now I have.

Next, I'll delve into the fascinating mess that is "Secret Six" #1, and from there we'll see how well it hold up 52 years later. Stay tuned.

Get ‘Mutant Cinema” for your Kindle – FREE!

Just wanted to let folks know my Sequart book, “Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen” is available for download on Kindle for free. How can you not want to read it with a cool cover like this one, from artist Kevin Colden?

Click here to go straight to the download page!

Don’t dawdle, check it out now!

And as an incentive, the first five folks to email me with a link to a review (good or bad) on Amazon or elsewhere of the Kindle version will get a FREE surprise comics treat from the extensive haul in my garage.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 5 – Comic-Book Movies and Mutant Cinema

I don’t have a lot of books about comic book movies, in part because I don’t think there are many out there that are not direct tie-in books. I have a few of those, including Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Making of the Movie, The Art of X2, The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion, and one or two more. Reference works are common, including Comic Book Movies by David Hughes and John Kenneth Muir’s comprehensive and readable (though pricey) Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

Of actual books on comics movies, I only have a few, including my own. So I’ll start there with a quick recap of how Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen came to be.


I was attending the first New York Comic-Con in February of 2006, enjoying the show despite having to endure a type of winter weather that had long been absent from my life. On the final day, I walked the floor of the Javits Center and came across the booth of Sequart, manned by Julian Darius and Mike Phillips. Julian had just released his book Batman Begins and the Comics, now re-released under the title Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen. He told me about the book and how it analyzed the movie scene by scene citing and analyzing how the comic book source material was used through the movie.

I immediately liked the idea and asked him if they were planning any more books like this. Julian said he was planning one on the then-upcoming Superman Returns. I asked if they had any plans for X-Men, which at that point was also coming soon with X-Men: The Last Stand. Mike said that was a good idea but they were mostly DC guys and didn’t know anyone who could write it. My brain went off and I said I could do it, and after a quick listing of my credentials we agreed to talk about it after the show.

A few weeks later we’d worked out a deal and I started writing. I found writing it to be alternately enjoyable and aggravating. A structure came easily, but finding time to devote to writing it in between other gigs that paid the kind of money I needed to keep the lights on was harder than I thought. Revising it also was tough — I felt like I could have revised it endlessly and made it a bit better with each draft, but then it was never going to get done.

Getting the book finished and revised took longer than expected and the book’s original target release date of autumn 2006 quickly revealed itself to be optimistic. Sequart did a great job in getting a small batch of an early version  printed up under the title X-Men: The Movie Trilogy and the Comics for the 2007 New York Comic-Con, complete with a cool cover illustration from Kevin Colden. Concerns about trademark lead to the revised title of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, as suggested by Julian, and another round of revisions was made before the book became final.

Reaction to the book at that NYCC was a surprise to me. Interest was limited among fans, most of whom already had strong opinions about the movie and familiarity with the source material.

The final version of the book was completed later that year and thus began a frustrating process in gaining distribution for the book. There was some technical issue with getting the book listed on Amazon — which took much longer to resolve than anyone expected. By the time all was repaired and the book was up on the site, a lot of key momentum had been lost as interest in the movies had dwindled after X-Men: The Last Stand.

Having watched each of the movies in the trilogy now dozens of times in writing the book, I think the X-Men trilogy will go down as a trendsetter that got the comic book movie off the ground. But they’ve been outpaced in terms of quality by subsequent, more interesting comic book movies.

The biggest puzzle for me is the strength of antipathy fans have toward The Last Stand. I agree with most that it falls short of X2 in most regards. But having watched it many times I also think it’s really not that much worse than X2 or X-Men. Most of the antipathy centers on Brett Ratner, whose public persona is about as far removed from that of Bryan Singer as you can get. But Ratner really was a hired gun on that movie, brought on just a couple weeks before shooting was to begin.  Ratner’s focus was on finishing the movie on time more than making a personal impression on the material.

The real fault for the movie’s problems lies with Fox, which set an impossible shooting schedule for the film and got cold feet when it came to following through with the Dark Phoenix storyline.

The movie works, I think, pretty well up to the point where Professor Xavier confronts Phoenix at her parents home and she disintegrates him. After that, the Phoenix storyline is dropped until the end of the film. And that ending changes the original story significantly from Jean as the hero, sacrificing herself because she knows she can’t control this level of power, to Wolverine becoming the hero and killing Jean even though he loves her. On the surface, it’s similar, but deep down, it’s quite different.

The other thing The Last Stand did well was to just unleash the characters into the action. On the first two films, Singer offered up inventive but short action sequences that always felt restrained. And it worked to keep the audience hungry for more because it gives the creators a place to go. But I don’t know that his instincts would have allowed him to deliver the kind of satisfying mayhem that Last Stand delivered.

In the end, I’m proud of the book, enjoyed the experience of writing it and learned a lot about my own personal strengths and shortcomings in the process.

If you’re interested in more, check out the book’s page on Sequart.com here, where you can read a sample chapter on previous movie and TV adaptations of X-Men and order the book. You also can get it from Amazon.com here.

Comic-book movies are definitely evolving. It’ll be interesting to see where Marvel goes once they’ve done two or three movies each with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Avengers. It’ll be just as interesting to see if DC can recover from the dismal reception of Green Lantern and figure out how to make the likes of Flash and Wonder Woman into good movies. And with Sony already re-inventing Spider-Man, the pressure will be on Fox to find some way to make good with new versions of Daredevil and Fantastic Four. Comic book movies are sure to stick around for a good ten years — it’s just what they will look like and whether audiences will tire of them that is up for debate.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 4

I don’t have nearly enough books in the category that this post covers: Books about the art and lives of specific artists. I think there are a lot more out there, but for some reason I don’t have as many of them as I thought I might.

I’ll start with The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, which I bought at a convention directly from the publisher and it was an autographed copy. I only met Carmine once, and it was at a convention and I simply said how much I had enjoyed his art on the old Marvel Star Wars series. That series was the one that got me reading comics and I had, as a kid, mixed feelings about the art. First, the comic was a lot better as soon as Infantino came aboard with writer Archie Goodwin. The stories were cool, fun to read, easy on the eyes and had some very clear storytelling. On the downside, none of the characters in the comic looked like the actors from the movie. That part bugged me enough — especially after seeing the bang-up job Mike Vosberg did on Star Wars Annual #1 — to write a letter to Marvel about it. All of which digresses from this book, which is an amiable recounting of Carmine’s career as he remembers it. That’s both a good and bad approach — there’s lots of good little anecdotes and plenty of cool artwork throughout the book, but there’s not much criticism. That leaves a few areas of comics history — especially during Infantino’s tenure as top editor at DC Comics during the late 1960s and early 1970s — no closer to any kind of definitive history than we were before. Still, fans of Infantino’s artwork should get a real kick out of this volume.

Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier is a very solid and enjoyable read that attempts to cover the life and work of Jack Kirby in a single volume. Given the sheer amount of writing that Kirby’s generated over the years, it’s obviously not going to be possible for any such book to cover every single thing Kirby did in the detail his fans would like. (For that, I always understood Evanier also was working on a much more detailed biography of Kirby that, I assume, will be published at some point in the future.) But this is a very solid account of Kirby, packed full of his amazing artwork and photos and well worth the time of die-hard and casual fans alike.

If you can’t get enough Kirby, then there is always The Collected Jack Kirby Collector. I have four volumes of this series, and expect a few more have come out I don’t own. These are terrific for getting into not just the specifics of Kirby’s career, but also his impact on the field and fans. The articles range from scholarly examinations of Kirby’s work to vintage interviews the artist gave over the years to recollections from people who either worked with Kirby or were just huge fans of his. Each volume also is generously illustrated with Kirby art, often photocopies of his original pencils. Reading this much about a single artist can be a bit overwhelming, so I read through these somewhat slowly, taking my time between stints to avoid Kirby burnout.



Mythology: The DC Comics art of Alex Ross is a beautiful art book packed full of Ross’ amazing paintings. No one really captures a sense of how classic superheroes would look in the real world quite the same way Ross does, with his extensive use of models, photo reference and an amazing talent for producing finished art that looks photographic. I think in a lot of ways, Ross’ art is better suited to being displayed in this kind of glossy format than in actual comic book stories, where painted art can slow down the reading process because it demands to be looked at. I bought my edition at a signing Ross did to promote its release a number of years ago at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. Putting on my Variety hat, I asked him what his favorite comic-book movie was. His answer: RoboCop.

Tim Sale: Black and White is a lovely art book produced by Richard Starkings’ Active Images. Printed in stark black and white on glossy paper, this book really shows off Sale’s atmospheric art to great advantage. The dark, inky pages are easy to get lost in, and there’s a career retrospective interview in there to boot. I think this particular book was released around the time Sale’s art was making a big impact on the TV series Heroes, back in its first season when it was quite the hot property.

Last on this list (for now) is Brush with Passion: The Art and Life of Dave Stevens. This was a gift I received from a fellow comics fan on my 40th birthday and really loved digging in to. I had long known Stevens’ work from various pin-ups and, of course, The Rocketeer. But this books goes a lot deeper and shows some of his contributions to many other projects, including such great films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the long-form music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It is a satisfying portrait of the artist, written mostly as autobiography but, unfortunately, finished by other hands after Stevens died from cancer a few years back.

One other volume that springs to mind is another TwoMorrows project, the Modern Masters series. I picked up the John Byrne volume at least in part because of some of the sketches from Byrne’s days at Charlton and later on X-Men. I also was pleasantly surprised to read Byrne talking about his days as a kid in Edmonton, Alberta, which is my hometown, and recognizing a couple of the places he described. In particular, I remember the newsstand at the downtown Eaton’s department story, which was right inside the front door and well-stocked with magazines, newspapers and paperbacks, though not too many comics by the time my teen-age collecting years kicked in. I also enjoyed Byrne’s brief recollection of Mike’s, a famous newsstand on Jasper Avenue that always had several spinner racks stuffed full of comics. I once made my father trudge over there on his way home from work to pick me up a copy of Star Wars #1 that I had seen there the day before but not had the 35 cents to pay for at the time. Here’s a story on Mike’s, which went out of business just a few months before my family moved to the States, complete with a photo of its distinctive neon sign.

I think I have one more post for this series, this one on comic book movies, including my own tome, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 3

This time, I look at the how-to-make-comics books on my shelves.

Alan McKenzie’s How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips was the first book I ever saw that specifically devoted itself to this particular topic. I saw it in the bookstore at the University of Arizona when I was a freshman in 1987 and was particularly interested in seeing what comics scripts looked like and how pencils differed from inks — both topics that seem to always confuse fans when they first ask about them. McKenzie’s book featured some nice historical material on comics and some great tips on how to learn to draw everything you need to be able to draw to do comics. He creates a sample comic in the book, complete with a full script, pencils, inks and colors. The book also covers production issues as they were in the day, i.e., lettering pages before they were inked and how to hand separate color plates. It’s a great book, even though it did nothing to help me learn to draw. My efforts in basic drawing class earned me only one of only two C’s in my college career, convincing me that drawing was not where my talents lay. It looks like this has been revised and updated for a couple of new editions, and should be pretty easy to find if you are so inclined.

Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art is a classic in the field and the first book to explore the specific qualities of comics as an artform. I enjoy this book more now that I’ve read a significant amount of Eisner’s work. The book appears to me to be more useful for artists who already know how to draw in applying their skills to comics. As I’ve discovered, it’s not easy to learn to make art (and, I imagine, to teach it) when so much of the experience is subjective and difficult to communicate through words.

I almost put Writers on Comics Scriptwriting in the interviews section, but decided that this book by Mark Salisbury (and its sequel volume) fits better in the how-to category. This is a very nice collection of lengthy Q-and-A interviews with top comics writers on the craft of creating comics. Among the folks in volume one are Peter David, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Kurt Busiek, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Warren Ellis. Volume two (by Tom Root and Andrew Kardon) covers Brian Azzarello, Dave Sim, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Mike Carey, Kevin Smith, Greg Rucka and Brian Michael Bendis. I believe both books are currently out of print, but they are worth tracking down if you’re interested in writing comics.

Along the same lines is Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers and Panel Two: More Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, both edited by Nat Gertler. Each volume includes a number of complete scripts by such talents as Busiek, Dwayne McDuffie, Jeff Smith, Neil Gaiman, etc. They’re fascinating for how different they all are, from formatting variations to overall tone. Most of the books whose scripts are published in these volumes are indie books that are easy to track down for comparison to the final product.

Another good overall primer on the thought that goes into comics is The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, by Denny O’Neil. This was part of an entire series DC did a few years back on how to make comics. While it does less in terms of showing complete scripts, it does discuss what goes in to making a comic work in the DC Universe, up to and including examples of how to map out and execute mega-crossovers.

There is no equivalent book from Marvel, but I do want to point out that anyone interested in seeing how books are put together on that side of town to track down the Rough Cut editions of Avengers (Vol. 3) #1, Thor (Vol. 2) #1, Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #1 and X-Force #102. These editions feature the complete plot and the pencils to those issues, giving a nice look at Marvel-style writing.

Few names are as well-regarded in the field as Alan Moore, so it’s a no-brainer that Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics from Avatar Press is well worth the read. This is a slim volume that collects a couple of essays Moore wrote on the topic, and they talk mainly about approach and execution with few examples. Moore’s scripts are legendary for being long and extremely detailed — try to read the full scripts in the supplementary volumes in the Absolute Editions of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  and see how far you get before mental exhaustion sets in.

Lastly, there’s Comic Book Lettering: The Comic-Craft Way, by Richard Starkings and John “JG” Roshell. I include this because I used to do print design and production work and enjoyed this peek at how to put all the pieces together exactly into the final package. If you don’t want to know what point size and kerning settings to use on comics type, this may not be for you. But reading this would be essential for anyone looking to letter a comic.

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 1

Finishing the Blake Bell book on Steve Ditko reminded me that I really enjoy nonfiction books about comics, comics creators and the comics industry. I also realized I have quite a few such books and they might make for an interesting post. Then I started listing them and realized it might take several posts.

So here’s the first one, focusing on books that offer historical overviews or essays about comics as a medium or specific comics characters

All in Color for a Dime and The Comic-Book Book, both edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson. These are very influential books in comics history, being collections of essays about all kinds of topics from Jingle-Jangle Tales to Captain Marvel. All in Color was first published in 1970 and became a rare and expensive find by the time I learned of it, so I had to wait for the 1990s re-issue. The Comic-Book Book was one of the first books on comics I got, as it was commonly available in used bookstores. I picked it up the first time because of Don Thompson, whose reviews in Comics Buyers Guide I enjoyed reading quite a bit in the last few years before he died.


Superman: The Complete History, Batman: The Complete History and Wonder Woman: The Complete History, all written by Les Daniels and beautifully designed and filled with amazing images by Chip Kidd. These are really solid and fun books to read and look through, even though there’s something about them that feels restrained and somehow corporate in tone. The book on Wonder Woman was the most interesting to me as her history is written about less frequently, even though it’s perhaps the most oddball and interesting of them all.

The Comic-Book Makers by Joe Simon with Jim Simon. I checked this out of a library and then had to return it before I finished reading it because I was moving. But it was interesting enough for me to seek out when it came back into print years later. An excellent look back at what it was like to work in the Golden Age of comics from one of the most-accomplished creators of that time.

The Comic-Book Heroes, by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. The original, 1984 edition of this was a book I coveted for a long time before I got to read it. I first saw it in the Waldenbooks at Paradise Valley Mall in Arizona sometime in late 1986. I desperately wanted to read it because it was the first history of comics I had seen that covered the era I was most interested in — the superhero books from the Silver Age on. Being a broke teenager, it took me a while to come up with the cash to buy the book, by which time the sole copy at the store had been sold. I didn’t see another copy until a few years later when I was in college and one turned up at the excellent Bookman’s store in Tucson. I devoured the book and loved it, especially for how compelling it was in recounting not just what happened in the books but the companies and people who were creating them. It also had some great criticism of a lot of comics of the time. Needless to say, I re-read this book several times and was thrilled when an updated version came out in 1996. That version was even better than the original, expanding the original book to cover everything that happened in the 1980s and up through the insanity of the speculator market and through the crash. Jones, of course, saw much of this first hand as a prolific scripter for both Marvel and DC, and the book is full of interesting details. If a third version were to be produced, I would be first in line to buy it.

Perhaps even more compelling is Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. This one goes all the way back to the dawn of the comics business and focuses in particular on Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz as they start and build DC into the industry powerhouse. This is full of well-researched details and exposes a shadier side of the industry. The battle over Superman waged between DC and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is central here, and the details are both fascinating and heartbreaking. There’s plenty of other great stuff from the Golden Age and even a look at the circumstances that created the comic book in the first place. Another absolute must-read.


Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes, both by Les Daniels, seem like they’d be natural bookends. The Marvel edition is a surprisingly solid, warts-and-all history of the publisher from the days of Martin Goodman up through the heyday of superstar artist Todd McFarlane. It does a very good job of covering all the bases and features lots of very nice cover reproductions and vintage photographs of creators. There’s even an illustrated “how-to-make-comics” section and annotated reprints of some vintage stories. The DC version, however, is nowhere near as interesting because it doesn’t weave the details into as interesting a narrative. Instead, it’s episodic and focuses a lot on how successful DC characters have been in other media. The Marvel book is better, but the DC version is still interesting for the photos and artwork.

I already wrote a ways back about Watching the Watchmen by Dave Gibbons, and had a chance to talk to Dave about the making of the book. I wish this kind of documentary evidence was readily available for more seminal comic book series. Basically, Gibbons kept every drawing and every scrap of paper related to the series and presents here in astonishing detail the work that went into making this important book. Gibbons also writes down his recollections, and it all adds up to a fascinating look at what creating comics can be like.

One more for this post: The Photojournal Guide to Comic Books, photographed by Ernie Gerber. There were four volumes in this series, with the third and fourth devoted exclusively to Marvel. These were very hot and expensive when they first came out, featuring color photographs of the covers of thousands of comics. It wasn’t comprehensive, but it included all the historically significant books from the Golden Age up through the 1980s. Today, the internet does this kind of thing better with extensive online photo galleries that can be searched and viewed with ease. But I still admire these and pull them out on occasion to thumb through because I always spot something interesting I hadn’t noticed before.

Next: Great comic book interviews.

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