Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Praise of "Uncle" Gardner!

From the start of my comic book obsession in 1972 I was almost equally fascinated by the history and creators of funny books as I was with the four-color creations themselves. At that time my favorite comic book was the Justice League of America. Also, DC Comics was reprinting tons of comic book stories from the “Golden Age” of the 1940s right up through the “Silver Age” of the 1960s. (In many ways it was the “Golden Age of Reprints,” but that’s a topic for a future essay.) So even though Gardner F. Fox had left the employ of DC Comics in 1968 (over a dispute about him and other long-time creators wanting DC to pay for health benefits –thank you, greedy corporate bastards…) I pretty quickly became familiar with his name and work.

Of course I would notice his last name, since it was the same as mine, and I couldn’t help speculating at times if perhaps there was a relation between us.  Perhaps he could even be a distant Uncle, how cool would that be! (But, as far as I know, there is no relation…)

Gardner F. Fox by Gil Kane

As for his work, Gardner Fox was definitely one of the most prolific writers to ever work in comics.  Some historians have estimated that he wrote over 4,000 comic book stories. In addition to the sheer numbers he was also a co-creator of the original Flash; Hawkman; the original Sandman; Starman; Dr. Fate; Zatanna; the first super-team, The Justice Society of America; its successor, the Justice League of America (for which he wrote the first 65 issues); one the greatest science fiction series in comic books, Adam Strange; and the list goes on and on.

Fox’s best stories were tightly plotted little gems, often with puzzles to be solved by his main characters that involved some scientific fact or esoteric knowledge. But although his writing may have been “old school comic pulp” that didn’t engage in the soap opera histrionics that Stan Lee and others employed at Marvel Comics, the comic book stories that Fox was writing for editor Julie Schwartz in the 1960s displayed a far more subtle and solid characterization than they are usually given credit for.

Yes, the characters in his Justice League stories could be rather interchangeable since the plot was king in that book, but on the solo series that Fox wrote – The Atom, Hawkman, and most of all, Adam Strange, he would drop little bits of character into stories that over time would build a really strong picture of his protagonists’ personalities. John Broome, the main writer on The Flash and Green Lantern during the sixties followed this same pattern, and it’s interesting to note that when Fox would script the occasional issue of those two series (usually the ones that would introduce BIG science fiction concepts) you would see no “personality writing” in the stories. Like he was holding back on purpose so as not to “mess with” Broome’s characters. (And it's also interesting how jarring the occasional fill-in by Robert Kanigher on The Flash would be since he would ignore and often contradict all the characterization that Broome had constructed.)

But in addition to all those funny book stories, Fox was also cranking out paperback novels. Between 1944 and 1982, he wrote at least one novel a year, sometimes more, in the genres of historical adventure, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, spy fiction and more -- under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms.  A few years ago I started picking up novels by Fox when I find them in decent condition, and all the ones that I have read so far have been well-written, entertaining and imaginative.
Frank Frazetta on the left, Gray Morrow on the right, what's not to like?
Right now I’m finishing up the two books in Fox’s Llarn series, a neat little planetary fantasy series that is of course, a John Carter of Mars imitator, or perhaps you could say Adam Strange with more sword fights and no worry about being whisked back to Earth when the time comes for the hero to get down with his space sweetie.

Reading these books and seeing the disappointing (though still fun on some levels) Green Lantern movie got me to thinking about Gardner Fox so I naturally looked him up on Wikipedia and also this really fine bio on the Hawkworld website. The result is that I found out two interesting facts. One is that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of his birth, something I’ve seen no mention of on the Internets, and two is that his birthday is one day after mine, May 20th! So a belated Happy Birthday to my “Uncle” Gardner and thanks for all the great adventures!

"Essentially a story should be entertaining. It should lift you out of the fact that you're sitting on a brownstone stoop, as I was when I read The Gods of Mars for the first time. Or the subway; the subway should disappear, and you're living in the world of the story. That is the ideal of the story." -- Gardner F. Fox

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