Seeing through Spectacles

Julian Darius’s essay Hollow Spectacle cites a current DC comic for its overuse of meaningless spectacular scenes, such as a scene in the recent Justice League #1, in which Green Lantern uses his power ring to fling a fire-engine at Batman. From the description I don’t have much doubt but that the comic deserves to be raked over a bed of coals long enough to engirdle Mogo, the Green Lantern Planet.

I’ve certainly seen my share of empty spectacles in all media, where a given spectacular scene is, in Darius’ words: “without any of the supporting structure of character and plot that would make this event, however glitzy its presentation, feel like it actually meant something.” And I agree that most of the time, empty spectacles are intensely boring and utterly predictable.

And yet –

As a child of the Silver Age, I’m aware that many of the juvenile comics I grew up with sold themselves through the use of weird spectacular situations on the covers of (mostly) DC comic books.

Silver Age comics fans all know the drill regarding, for example, the features from the 1960s Julius Schwartz stable. Often editor Schwartz, on his own or with a scripter, conceived the spectacular cover with which the feature would be sold. Then it was became the writer’s job to come up with some story with which to justify the striking cover image.

In most cases fans have no way of knowing which comics were conceived from a cover-situation. However, sometimes it’s plain when the story and cover-spectacle are in sync, and when they’re not.

One of the most famous covers of the Silver Age Flash, for example, is Flash #133, in which the featured hero utters the immortal line, “I’ve got the strangest feeling I’m being turned into a puppet!” The line is daffy, but within the permutations of what can happen in a superhero story, the story would probably satisfy Darius’ requirements for “character and plot,” as seen in this summation:

(1) Villain Abra Kadabra escapes prison in the future and comes to 20th-century Earth again, (2) He sets up an entirely legal puppet-show which makes fun of his old foe the Flash, (3) Flash doesn’t like being belittled but can’t retaliate except indirectly: by declaring a “war on crime” that causes the locals to respect him again and stop attending Abra’s shows,(4) Abra finally goes back to crime by changing Flash into a puppet and putting him in his show for some more direct humiliation (5) Flash beats Abra and sends him back to prison.

In the example the script, by veteran John Broome, is solid despite the wacky spectacle of the cover-art, in that Broome centers on the egoistic rivalry of a cop and a criminal. However, one can also find examples where it’s plain that the writer worked the cover-idea into his story but gave the spectacle little real consideration in the story. In “Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare” from Detective Comics #336, the scene used for the cover-art, in which a broom-riding witch transforms Batman into a scarecrow, only takes up a handful of panels in the actual story. The writer of that story, Gardner Fox, probably regarded the gimmick-cover as a necessary evil and therefore devoted as little story-time as possible to it. This is closer to the model of meaningless spectacle, and one could argue that if the gimmick-cover does the story no real harm it doesn’t do it much good either.

Silver Age fans were also quite aware of the cover that was an actual cheat, and tended to resent it. Detective Comics #362, featuring a story titled “The Night Batman Destroyed Gotham City” is one of the cheaty-est of them all, though perhaps the easiest to summarize: Batman doesn’t actually destroy Gotham, but a scale model of the city.

These three examples evince that in the Silver Age there existed a sort of desperation ethic as far as covers were concerned. Sometimes the spectacular cover enhanced the sort of wild-fantasy milieu that made a feature like The Flash so memorable. At other times the use of flagrant spectacle might be neutral or even aggravating to the readers’ experience.

Mainstream comic books, in large part following the example of the prose pulp magazines, has had a long history of appealing to spectacle as a way of luring in the impulse buyer. And, just as is the case with Darius’ examples, mine show that there were good and bad manifestations of an earlier generation’s spectacular attention-getters.

The only caveat I would offer to Darius’ essay is that on some occasions there are films or comics in the modern mode of ultraviolence that, despite not being as well-thought-out as (say) his example Die Hard, do sustain some psychological interest. But that’s a subject for a separate essay.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen



  1. I’ll need to go back and read Julian’s article before I comment too much on your’s essay; however, I find it interesting to hear about the “DC Way” of crafting comics as everyone is typically aware of the Marvel Way via Stan Lee. In many regards, this “cheating” does seem to account for the strained quality that marks so many of the Silver Age DC books, where story lines were nowhere near as strong as they would later become in the Bronze Age (1970s). While I know there are other factors, such as Batman and Detective Comics attempts to replicate much of the camp from the popular television series, this was one I hadn’t heard yet.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Gene, this is a very good essay, and it’s an important caveat to the whole debate over spectacle. I’m honored that you thought some of my thoughts important enough to comment on, and I love thoughtful disagreement. You’ve managed to make an excellent point about spectacle, one that was indeed missing from what I wrote.

    And I do so love those Silver Age DC stories, inspired by those cover ideas, which were often thought up by Schwartz himself. I do want to add that the fun of these stories wasn’t merely these bizarre situations or spectacles. It was seeing how the heroes would get into those positions. Because the issues using this device that worked were the ones in which the writers took the cover idea and ran with it, organizing a story around this spectacle precisely in order to justify it. And many of those Silver Age DC stories are remarkably smart, as well as silly.

    It’s a world away from Green Lantern plowing someone with a fire truck for no discernible reason.

    And when the DC method you describe became strained, so that the interior didn’t justify the spectacle, people rebelled. And rightly so.

    In other words, everything you’ve said here very much supports what I’ve said, at least to my eyes, expanding upon my argument and qualifying it in important ways.

    Also, for the record, I do agree that hollow, stupid spectacles can be interesting subjects for interpretation. Bad horror or sci-fi movies are too. But that doesn’t make them good, obviously.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts, and I hope you don’t mind if I chimed in!

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