Into the Inky Shadows With Jerry Grandenetti

« Jerry Grandenetti started out ghosting The Spirit, and nobody… NOBODY… captured the spirit of The Spirit better. Not content to stay in Will Eisner’s shadow forever, he forged his own unique style leading to a highly successful comics career lasting decades. » — Michael T. Gilbert

Since my very first encounter with his work, Jerry Grandenetti (1926-2010; born ninety-five years ago today, another Thursday April 15th) has endured as one of my true artistic heroes. But he’s not celebrated much at all.

Though he’s worked extensively on The Spirit, he’s treated as a bit of a footnote in the Eisner hagiography. His DC war work is well-regarded, but he’s inevitably overshadowed by the Joe KubertRuss HeathJohn Severin trinity. Besides, by and large, the war comics audience doesn’t overlap much with the spandex long johns crowd. Grandenetti has only very occasionally and timidly dipped a toe into the super-heroics fray, and he was far too unusual for overwhelming mainstream acclaim.

In fact, aside from the couple of converts I’ve made over the years, I can only think of three fellow torch-bearing aficionados: Michael T. Gilbert (who digs best the early, Eisner-employed Jerry); Stephen R. Bissette (who favours the spooky 60s and 70s work); and Don Mangus, who’s most into the DC war stuff. I daresay I enjoy it all, but my taste is most closely aligned with Mr. Bissette’s on this particular point. Let’s sample a bit of everything, insofar as it’s feasible to sum up a career spread out over five decades… in a dozen-or-so images.

Opening splash from The Secret Files of Dr. Drew: Sabina the Sorceress, written by Marilyn Mercer and lettered by Abe Kanegson, from Rangers Comics no. 56 (Dec. 1950, Fiction House); this version hails from a reprint (Mr. Monster’s Super Duper Special no. 2, Aug. 1986, Eclipse) using the surviving original art; it was recoloured by Steve Oliff.
Page 3 from The Secret Files of Dr. Drew: Curse of the Mandibles!, written by Marilyn Mercer and lettered by Abe Kanegson, from Rangers Comics no. 55 (Oct. 1950, Fiction House); this version hails from a reprint (Doc Stearn… Mr. Monster no. 4, Dec. 1985, Eclipse) using the surviving original art; it was most tastefully recoloured by Steve Oliff.

In 1954, the powers-that-be at National Periodical Publications (you know, DC) gave Grandenetti some latitude to experiment with their War covers. Grandenetti produced an arresting hybrid of painted and line art. The process involved a grey wash painting that was photostatted, with flat colour laid over the resulting image. The first few attempts yielded striking, but nearly monochromatic results. A bit farther down the pike, the production department got more assured in its technical exploration.

This is G.I. Combat no. 77 (Oct. 1959, DC); wash tones and colouring by Jack Adler, who recalled, in a 1970s interview: « It was suggested that we start doing washes for covers, and we were talking about doing it for so damned long, but nobody attempted it. I think Grandenetti did the first one, an army cover with someone floating in the water. I think that was the first wash cover that was done. That one ended up looking like a full color painting. »
This is G.I. Combat no. 83 (Aug.- Sept. 1960, DC); wash tones and colouring by Jack Adler. In 1995, Robert Kanigher, Grandenetti’s editor on the DC war books and a frequent collaborator, recalled: « Jerry liked to experiment and I had to sit on him to get him to stop it. Especially in his covers, which were outstanding, when I forced him to draw as realistically as possible. »
Original art from The Wrath of Warlord Krang!, smothered in dialogue and exposition by Stan Lee, from Tales to Astonish no. 86 (Dec. 1966, Marvel); inks by Bill Everett. Namor‘s constant random shouts of ‘Imperius Rex!‘ make him sound like a sitcom character with Tourette’s. As far as I’m concerned, it’s possibly been the most annoyingly asinine slogan in comics since Stan stole ‘Excelsior!‘ from Jean Shepherd.
The opening splash from Cry Fear, Cry Phantom, written by Archie Goodwin, from Eerie no. 7 (Jan. 1967, Warren). In the mid-60s, presumably tiring of being pigeonholed as a war artist at DC, Grandenetti made the publishers’ rounds, doing a bit of work for Tower, Gold Key, Charlton, Marvel, Cracked (check it out here) and most memorably Warren where, after ghosting a few stories for Joe Orlando, he unleashed his innovative expressionistic style.

DC was generally hesitant to entrust its more established properties to the more “out there” artists. In the cases of Grandenetti and Carmine Infantino, the solution was to match them with the weirdness-dampening inks of straight-arrow artist Murphy Anderson. And you know what? It did wonders for both pencillers and inker.

This is The Spectre no. 6, October, 1968. A tale told by Gardner Fox (and likely heavily revised by hands-on editor Julius Schwartz, a man who loved alliterative titling) and superbly illustrated by the Grandenetti-Anderson team. Steve Ditko aside, Jerry Grandenetti had no peer in the obscure art of depicting eldritch dimensions (you’ll see!)

Page 13 from Pilgrims of Peril! written by Gardner Fox, from The Spectre no. 6 (Sept.- Oct. 1968, DC); inked by Murphy Anderson. Dig the salute to a trio of real-life spooky writers, all of whom editor Julius Schwartz knew well, having even served as Lovecraft’s literary agent late in his life. By the tail end of the 1960s, Lovecraft’s work was finally making some commercial inroads, thanks largely to Arkham House co-publisher Derleth‘s unflagging diligence.
Page 22 from Pilgrims of Peril! written by Gardner Fox, from The Spectre no. 6 (Sept.- Oct. 1968, DC); inked by Murphy Anderson.
Page 2 from Men Call Me the Phantom Stranger, written by Mike Friedrich, from Showcase no. 80 (Feb. 1969, DC); inks by Bill Draut. This story reintroduced an obscure character from the early 50s, which Grandenetti had drawn a couple of times during his six-issue run. The Phantom Stranger has remained active ever since, but most writers (save Alan Moore, wouldn’t you know it?) don’t really know what to do with him. This, however, is my very favourite PS appearance. Draut, a slightly old-fashioned penciller by this time was, as a slick inker, a wonderful fit for Grandenetti’s confidently loopy layouts.
Page 3 from The Haunting!, written by Jack Oleck, from House of Mystery no. 183 ((Nov.-Dec. 1969, DC). Grandenetti pencils and inks: undiluted!
Page 2 from Eyes of the Cat, written by Robert Kanigher, from House of Mystery no. 189 (Nov.-Dec. 1970, DC); inks by Jerry’s fellow Will Eisner ghost Wallace Wood. The inspired combination of Grandenetti’s adventurous layouts and the velvety unctuousness of Wood’s finishes are a match made in heaven, but one Woody wasn’t fond of. Oh well.

So there you are. Just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Happy birthday, Mr. Grandenetti!

-RG

Of Confectionery and Clowns

« This world is run by clowns who can’t wait for it to end. » — Too Much Joy, ‘Clowns

Well, the topic of this post kind of snuck up on me. I’ll explain: last Saturday, as we were out of Russian marinated mushrooms (a simply unacceptable state of affairs in this household), we ventured into a European deli in quest of something to tide us over until we could properly restock. They had some button mushrooms in oil, fair enough. As we reached the counter to tally up our purchases, something caught my eye: a display for a French confection called Carambar, which I’d known about for most of my life, but never encountered in the wild.

After a moment’s hesitation (which baffled my partner), we picked up a sample and added it to our bounty.

It happens that Caram’ Bar (as it was called until 1977, when the apostrophe was dropped) ties into a minor childhood incident whose recollection elicits, in equal parts, snickers of amusement and pangs of guilt. It was in, oh, the second or third grade. We were standing in rows, about to return to class after recess. I turned to my neighbouring classmate, and asked him whether he knew… oh, never mind — it went exactly like this:

Mister Pipo! I will pose you a riddle!” “Do you know what the difference is between a Caram’ Bar…” (I love riddles!) “… and a Super Caram’ Bar?” (They’re the same!) “But of course not, Mister Pipo!” “The Caram’ Bar was this long…
The Super Caram’ Bar is THIS LONG!” The full-length Super Caram’ Bar fumetti, as it appeared in the pages of Pif Gadget no. 171 (May 1972, Vaillant).

Regrettably, the back of my hand connected with my classmate’s nose, not his cheek, and he wound up with a nosebleed. Désolé, Germain!

The acquired item.
…. unwrapped. CaramBar wrappers have, since the 60s, famously featured corny gags, which once were selected from entries provided by consumers. A kid whose joke got the nod could win his weight in candy. Here’s one of the pair I got here (the other doesn’t work in English)… Q: Why are elephants grey? A: Because if they were pink, they’d get confused with strawberries. It may come as no surprise that in France, a ‘blague Carambar’ has become shorthand for a lame joke.

The preceding Super Caram’ Bar ad was quite unusual in that it was a full-colour three-pager, which must have cost the candy maker a bundle. Indeed, it only ran au complet once or twice; thereafter, only its concluding page appeared.

Looking back at this campaign, I wondered whether these clowns were merely company mascots, or something more. As it turns out, Sergio (né Serge Drouard in 1950, so 21 years old at the time) was in the early stages of a remarkable career in the circus, first as Clown blanc Sergio (here are a brief video profile from 1970 and a lovely 1975 performance at Paris’ legendary Cirque d’hiver) and then as ringmaster M. Fidèle. Now seventy, he more-or-less retired after the 2010-2011 season. As for poor Pipo, I’m afraid I don’t know. He’s similar to the famous Dutch clown Pipo de Clown, but they’re merely homonyms.

Clowns are a curious proposition. Kids used to (presumably) find them amusing and endearing, but several generations of thin, gruelling antics and downgrading of the brand and métier, not to mention the sinister hijinks of the infamous Pogo the clown, have flipped the cultural perception of these once-beloved entertainers. At this point, Coulrophobia is impressively widespread, and not just among the wee ones.

For my part, I’m not so eager to condemn en bloc. Your run-of-the-mill, unqualified local kids’ show, mall-opening Bozo is but a faint, hopelessly distorted echo of the great clowns of history. They were the fruits of a complex, nuanced and codified tradition with its thick, gnarled roots in early 16th century Italy’s Commedia dell’ Arte.

But I don’t need to reach quite that far: I grew up on Radio-Canada’s absurd, minimalist masterpiece Sol et Gobelet (1968-71). Sol (Marc Favreau) was a naïve tramp clown who creatively mangled language and logic and Gobelet (Luc Durand) was the poetic, reasonable, refined Pierrot type. Here’s a classic episode. Such is the duo’s cultural significance that a public library (Favreau) and a nearby public park (Durand) have been christened in their posthumous honour.

And since we’re on comics and clowns, here’s a bonus short tale.

« Sergio has also learned that one must never try to catch a falling performer. One should only push them to redirect their path and cushion their fall. One day at the Paradis latin, he had no choice but to tackle in flight a trapeze artist who was about to land on a table. The outcome : a few collapsed vertebrae. » Also, « When a lion attacks, it always goes for the testicles. » Keep these sage verities in mind, next time you’re under the big top!
Laugh Clown — Die, Clown appeared in It’s Midnight… The Witching Hour no. 21 (June-July 1972, DC). It was scripted by editor Murray Boltinoff under his Bill Dehenny nom de plume and illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti.

While LCDC is the flimsiest of stories, just a troupe of stock characters going through their hoary paces, Grandenetti’s artwork elevates the affair. It’s as if, having precious little to work with, the artist opted to push against the material, moulding it oddly, imbuing the proceedings with unstated implications. Consider, for instance, how sinister is the depiction of the ringmaster. Nothing in the dialogue or plot indicates that the man is up to anything untoward or malicious, quite the contrary. The second panel of page four is quintessential Grandenetti.

And how was my first Carambar, you may ask. We both tried it, and… were singularly underwhelmed. Perhaps it was a question of freshness, but it was disappointingly brittle in the beginning, almost chalky, hardly what you’d expect from a caramel product. Then it just fell apart and faded, like third-rate taffy.

« I found something in one of my pockets. It was about as big as your shoe, but it was shaped like a rocket! » — a not-at-all ambiguous statement from litigious chuckler Bozo the Clown

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 13

« Room for one more, honey! »

A Jack Kirby cover scene gets winningly recast for the 70s by Jerry Grandenetti, himself a contributor to the original series. This is This is Black Magic no. 6 (Oct.-Nov. 1974, DC).

When I was a kid (of twelve or so, if memory serves), I found a muddy and mildewed copy of this issue in the woods, which tremendously added to its allure, if not its readability.

And since I’ve mentioned it, here’s the original Kirby cover, regrettably one of the King’s least engaging, if you ask me. This is Black Magic no. 11 (vol. 2 no.5, Apr. 1952, Prize).

Well… little did I know what a protracted history this particular little scenario had. Let’s return to the presumed beginning, or at least the industrial age version.

Around the turn of the last century, the prolific English writer Edward Frederic Benson (1867 – 1940) wrote a story entitled The Bus Conductor [ read it here ] that saw print in Pall Mall Magazine in 1906. It was quite well-received, then began to widely make the rounds… as putative fact.

Things kicked into high gear in the mid-1940s, as the tale was recounted as an oft-heard anecdote in editor Bennett Cerf‘s 1944 short story anthology, Famous Ghost Stories, which contained a Benson contribution… but not The Bus Conductor.

That same year, Cerf shared the anecdote with the legion of readers who picked up his highly-entertaining (and still dirt-cheap and easy to find, over three-quarters of a century later, which gives you a sense of its original success and ubiquity) book of anecdotes, Try and Stop Me. The pertinent chapter was the splendidly-titled The Trail of the Tingling Spine. As examined earlier on this blog, this chapter was used by EC Comics’ Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein as what they termed ‘springboards’ for their earliest stories.

Cerf’s version, from Try and Stop Me:

When an intelligent, comely girl of twenty-odd summers was invited for the first time to the Carolina estate of some distant relatives, their lovely plantation fulfilled her fondest expectations. She was given a room in the west wing, and prepared to retire for the night in a glow of satisfaction. Her room was drenched with the light of a full moon.

Just as she was climbing into her bed, she was startled by the sound of horses’ hooves on the gravel roadway. Curious, she walked to the window and saw, to her astonishment, a magnificent old coach pull up to an abrupt stop directly below her. The coachman jumped from his perch, looked up and pointed a long, bony finger at her. He was hideous. His face was chalk-white. A deep scar ran the length of his left cheek. His nose was beaked. As he pointed to her, he droned in sepulchral tones, “There is room for one more!” Then, as she recoiled in terror, the coach, the horses and the ominous coachman disappeared completely.

The girl slept little, but the next day she was able to convince herself that she merely had a nightmare.

The next night, however, the horrible experience was repeated. The same coach drove up the roadway. The same coachman pointed at her and exclaimed, “There is room for one more!” Then, as before, the entire equipage disappeared.

The girl, now panic-stricken, could scarcely wait for morning. She trumped up some excuse to her hosts and left immediately for home.

Upon arrival, she taxied to her doctor from the station and told him her story in tremulous tones. The doctor persuaded her that she had been the victim of a peculiar hallucination, laughed at her terror, and dismissed her in a state of infinite relief. As she rang for the elevator, its door swung open before her.

The elevator was very crowded, but she was about to squeeze her way inside — when a familiar voice rang in her ear. “There is room for one more!” it called. In terror, she stared at the operator.

Try and Stop Me was lavishly and diversely illustrated by The New Yorker great Carl Rose, which surely must have contributed considerably to its success. I’d say Simon and Grandenetti were quite familiar with this striking image.

He was the coachman who had pointed at her! She saw his chalk–white face, the livid scar, the beaked nose! She drew back and screamed… the elevator door banged shut.

A moment later the building shook with a terrible crash. The elevator that had gone on without her broke loose from its cables and plunged eighteen stories to the ground. Everybody in it, of course, was crushed to a pulp.

Then followed Ealing Studios‘ legendary portmanteau film, Dead of Night, in which Benson received his due credit as the source for its The Hearse Driver segment [ look for the germane bit around the 1:25 mark ].

A moody still from Dead of Night.

Then came Simon and Kirby’s comics take.

On to the Sixties: Rod Serling also drew upon the Cerf anecdote as grist for his The Twilight Zone episode Twenty Two (season 2, episode 17, aired Feb. 10, 1961). Here’s a pivotal scene from it.

Well, that’s certainly easier on the eyes than that gaunt vulture of an elevator operator… but no less menacing. You may recognize Mr. Spock’s future bride, Arlene Martel.

The Twilight Zone’s continuing popularity pretty much killed the scenario’s urban legend potency (Snopes.com checked it out!) In 1999, Urban legend authority Jan Harold Brunvand wrote, in his Too Good to Be True – The Colossal Book of Urban Legends:

According to my readers when I wrote a newspaper column in 1989 about the old ‘Dream Warning’ legends, The Twilight Zone version was the only one most of them knew. After numerous reruns, the TV episode had virtually replaced the folk legend in the popular mind. Every reader who wrote me following my column mentioned this episode, with one exception, and this person mentioned that he saw the plot enacted in a mid-1940s film, called Dead of Night. I’ll bet my legend-hunting license that this film, too, borrowed from the Cerf version.

I wouldn’t make that wager if I were you, Mr. Brunvand… since Dead of Night properly credits Benson.

To give you a sense of how effectively these stories flit and flicker across storytelling modes and media, power pop wizard Scott Miller (1960-2013) opened his band Game Theory‘s 1988 album, Two Steps From the Middle Ages, with a haunting ditty entitled Room for One More, Honey, an acknowledged quotation of the Twilight Zone episode.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 20

« Eeeeeeeeeee! A horrible monster! He wants to… to eat me! »

With the coming of Hallowe’en, you have to get all the bases covered: an ungodly hoard of candy, a pumpkin to carve and assorted decorations to array about the house. Thank your lucky stars for the lightness of your burden: the average Balkan peasant also has to polish his pitchfork, sharpen and set out wooden stakes, gather sprigs of wolfsbane, and round up the requisite number of torches.

GrandeMonsterA
A detail from page eight: Grandenetti at his late-period finest, each page crackling with nervous energy and brimming with shadowy ambiance.

This merry nocturnal chase is brought to you by the team of Otto Binder, writer, and local favourite Jerry Grandenetti, illustrator. It comes from the sixth issue (January, 1969) of Cracked‘s go at a Warren-style Monster mag, For Monsters Only (10 issues… plus a  best-of “annual”, sporadically published between 1965 and 1972). This was Frankenstein ’68, the first of three entries in Binder and Grandenetti’s The Secret Files of Marc Vangoro*, featured in issues 6, 7 and 8 of the mag. Well worth hunting down.

GrandenettiFrank_10A

While this material has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted, and as copies of these long-neglected mags are getting scarcer and naturally pricier, fear not… for some kind souls have taken the considerable trouble of scanning, and more to the point, sharing them. In this particular case, look here.

FMO6CoverA
Here’s the cover you need to keep an eye for. This is Cracked’s For Monsters Only no. 6 (Jan. 1969). That handsome fella is said to be the creation of the renowned wildlife painter Charles Fracé, of all people.

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It’s heartening to know that the original art still exists and is in presumably caring hands.

– RG

*perhaps a knowing wink at Grandenetti’s (with fellow Eisner Studio acolytes Marilyn Mercer and Abe Kanegson) 1949-51 classic The Secret Files of Dr. Drew, blessedly available in an exemplary edition, thanks to the sterling efforts of cartoonist-scholar Michael T. Gilbert.

Dateline: Frontline – The Cary Burkett Interview, Part 3

« From time to time a sputtering doodle-bug shatters the torpor of the overcast sky. One second, sometimes two … at most three … of silence. Visualizing that fat cigar with shark fins as it stops dead, sways, idiotically tips over, then goes into a vertical dive. And explodes. Usually it’s an entire building that’s destroyed. » — Jacques Yonnet

Perhaps the title gave the game away, but we’re back with part three to wrap up (in style!) our talk with Cary Burkett on his and Jerry Grandenetti‘s (and Ric Estrada‘s) Dateline: Frontline (1977-1981).

Who’s Out There: How hands-on an editor was Paul Levitz?

CB: Paul was more hands-on at the beginning. We would have a plot conference and he would toss out suggestions and sometimes specific directions. But Paul was a very smart guy, and he had a way of figuring out how to best to work with individual writers. With me, it usually worked better to plant a seed and let it develop rather than to nail things down too tightly. I didn’t think fast in a plot conference setting, I was too intimidated by Paul’s creativity and confidence. I think Paul figured this out and found ways to drop a little guidance in that I could take time to mull over on my own.

Paul was also extremely busy, not just an Editor but the Editorial Coordinator for the whole line of DC comics, and that is a whopping responsibility. So as things progressed, he was less hands-on. I like to think he began to trust the material I was giving him.

WOT: Was there much distance between the précis Mr. Levitz assigned you to do and the scenario you handed in?

CBI don’t think so.

WOT: Dateline: Frontline is clearly a bit of a ‘pill in the hamburger’, that is to say, instructive, eye-opening material. Was this ‘Trojan Horse’ approach considered and deliberate? (Surely it wasn’t just intended as pure entertainment!)

CBIn a way, it was deliberate, although not carefully considered or planned out. The trajectory was set by Paul when he passed on to me the book The First Casualty as background guidance. The tone of that book and all the eye-opening material in it definitely influenced the approach to the series. The very idea that the main character would be a war correspondent, not a soldier or fighter, meant that these stories would have a different kind of focus. That concept came from Paul, along with the title of the series.

Of course, in comics, you could do a series with a war correspondent where the protagonist becomes a fighter, a behind-the-lines de-facto special forces soldier. If this had been a Jack Kirby strip in the ‘60’s, the correspondent would probably be thrown into situations every issue where he had to fight his way out to save threatened soldiers from some Nazi ambush. You know what I mean.

So we knew we weren’t going for pure entertainment, sure. And the more research I did, the more interested I became in the reality of what happened in the war, and the more I wanted to portray that. And since it was just a 6-page, irregular backup series, we could go in that direction.

WOT: If you were to write this series today, what, if anything, would you do differently? What effect might the intervening years and the current political climate have, for instance?

CBToo much to think about. But I will say this, I think to try to tie the series to any current political issue would tend to push it into something contrived to fit the agenda. In a way, then, it would become a kind of political propaganda, the very opposite of what the series grapples with.

That’s part of why I wasn’t so interested in setting it during the Vietnam War back in 1976 or ’77. Today, it could be put in that setting without triggering a firestorm of controversy which might drown out what the series is trying to show.

My point is that the issue of seeking truth in a time of war is not limited to any time or place. By attaching the theme to a current political hot button issue, it becomes weaker, not stronger. It becomes more limited, not broader. And it’s more difficult to hear.

My preference would be to see the series deal with the questions outside of the current political setting, and hopefully along the way to see in some way how they apply today.

Maybe that is the ‘Trojan Horse’ method you mentioned.

WOT: I’d say you nailed it.

WOT: Were you writing and planning much in advance? Are there any contemplated, but unpublished, plotlines you’d care to share?

CBI wasn’t planning specifically very far in advance. I was never sure which set of stories might be the last. But I had a vague outline in my head that I would progress through the major events of the war, choosing specific ones for Clifford to be present reporting. They would be chosen for their historical significance but also to advance general themes of the conflict between reporting the truth and trying to win a World War.

The final series of stories, I think, would have been centered on events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and somehow Clifford would have found a way to write a story about it which revealed some of the horrible details … which of course, would never have seen the light of day. Even now, thinking about this, some lines of dialogue closing out the series kind of come to my mind.

I see Clifford, exhausted and disappointed, having given his all to get this incredible story, bitter and at the breaking point. Like it happens to all of us sometimes, the fact that he can’t publish this story seems to him to be an event that sums up his whole life as a failure. He questions why he made such a herculean effort to get the story, why he ever even bothered to try. All his previous failures to get the truth out come back to accuse him.

Maybe it’s his old mentor, the older reporter who tried to ground him a few times, who has the last word. And those words would be about the truth, and the value of searching for it no matter the outcome. And that the truth itself will stand even if only one person knows it. And the old reporter, cynical as he might have seemed at times, would be shown to have his own ideals which have sustained him through the same battles that Clifford has fought.

Yeah, maybe it sounds a bit corny out of the context of the story. But I think I’d go there. I might even have the old reporter say something like, “Truth may seem to be the first casualty in a war. But Truth can never really die, right? Someday people will know the truth about what happened.”

HA! I never expected a story idea for Dateline:Frontline would pop into my head like that after all these years. Seems like this would be a good closing question for this interview. I appreciate you bringing it up, and thanks for giving me a chance to reminisce.

WOT: And thank you for doing it so thoughtfully and graciously.

WhoThereLogotype

And now, to see our readers off with a story, here, as promised last time, is the concluding episode of Dateline:Frontline’s London trilogy.

Dateline3London01ADateline3London02ADateline3London03ADateline3London04ADateline3London05ADateline3London06A

And as a parting bonus, a vintage in-house biography of young Mr. Burkett!

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-RG

Dateline: Frontline – The Cary Burkett Interview, Part 2

« A reader has the right to ask for all the facts; he has no right to ask that a journalist or historian agree with him. » — Herbert Matthews

And we’re back with part two of our examination of Cary Burkett and Jerry Grandenetti‘s Dateline: Frontline (we’re not forgetting the famously-ambidextrous Ric Estrada, who took over illustrative duties in the second half of the series). In part one, Mr. Burkett graciously opened for us a window on the series’ genesis. In light of these privileged behind-the-scenes gleanings, as well as a reading of the series’ springboard text, Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty, I formulated  a series of follow-up questions, of which we present the first half, along, of course, with Mr. Burkett’s insightful and modest responses, followed by chapter 2 of the first D:F trilogy.

Who’s Out There: Was there much deliberation on your part regarding the specific setting of the series?

Cary Burkett: I vaguely recall that in an early meeting with Paul Levitz we mentioned the possibility of setting the series during the Vietnam war. Or rather, I think he may have mentioned it. But I never had any interest in that from the beginning. That war was too close at the time, and I didn’t think I could do it. Research was a lot harder to do in those days, and I was too green as a writer to want to tackle that controversy.

If my memory is right, I think he left it up to me, and I very quickly settled on the World War II setting. There were a lot of reasons in my mind for that, including the wealth of research material available.

But the biggest thing was the fact that the U.S. started out as “neutral” in that war. I felt a story arc right away of a young reporter who began as a “neutral” observer, wanting to be an objective journalist, but over a series of events finding himself unable to keep from being drawn in and taking sides, despite his proclaimed neutrality.

At the time I didn’t know how long the series might last, but it was my intention to gradually move Wayne Clifford from a naïve journalist with laudable ideals into a conflicted character grappling with the very gray areas of war reporting and the messy questions of patriotism and propaganda.

WOT: In writing the series, did you ever find yourself at odds with the, er, ‘official record‘ of history?

CBI wouldn’t say that exactly. The truth is, I had only a sketchy knowledge of World War II history, and little idea of what the “official record” said. So I set about to educate myself.

One really good current documentary at the time was The World at War narrated by Laurence Olivier. I watched a number of episodes of that. What I realized from watching it was how much the history I had heard and read was centered on how the U.S. and England had won the war. This documentary was one of the first western pieces which really pointed out the importance of the Russian contribution.

That led me to other research and made me want to do a series of stories set in Russia. Of course, the insane difficulties of trying to report the truth during a war in the middle of Russia appealed vastly to me and provided a lot of opportunities for conflict on a lot of levels. I felt I barely scratched the surface in those Russia stories.

One thing about doing research; you start to get interested in all the little details. You want to include much more than you really can. You have to be careful to let the story reveal the details when it is important to the story, but not to let the research itself become the story.

I struggled with that in writing those Russia stories, because much of what I was finding out was really eye-opening to me. What I knew about the war in Russia I had learned mainly from watching Hogan’s Heroes. In that TV comedy, the Nazis all feared being sent to the Russian front, so you knew it was cold and terrible. But that’s about all I knew.

When I began to read about the scope of the tragedy and brutality of the war in Russia, I wanted to bring the reality of it into my stories. I wanted to shove it all in somehow. But my stories were a mere 6 pages long in each issue, so I had to just try to give little glimpses that implied a lot more.

Stephen King’s advice to writers is to “kill your darlings”, that is, to get rid of your pet favorite bits so they don’t bog down the story. Those Russia stories were ones where I felt I had to keep killing those “darlings” over and over.

WOT: Was there any friction with DC’s brass, or was the series too far under the radar for them to notice? If so, did that allow you more leeway?

CBWe were definitely way under the radar, but I don’t think that the stories would have caused any stir even if they had been noticed. I don’t think there was anything subversive or strongly controversial about them. They were different from the usual comic book war stories, but not in a way that would cause any issues.

The lead stories of the books featured Gravedigger, or later, The Unknown Soldier. These were the stories that were there to sell the book, and these would have gotten more scrutiny. They were the typical action-oriented comic book war stories, sometimes just a step away from fantasy. Sometimes not even a step.

With a long-running lead character in a war series, you have to be a bit looser with timelines in the war. I suppose it’s a convention of the genre that the character might pop up in Okinawa in one story, then many issues later have a story related to D-Day, even though D-Day would have happened well before Okinawa.

Maybe it’s because the main character was a journalist who was dedicated to getting the facts right, but I decided that my timeline was going to be accurate. The series would start with the U.S. as a neutral country, and we would later see the USA join the war, and all of the historical events would follow in the order they occurred.

WOT: Was the rotation of backup features decided from the start? Was it some sort of commercial compromise?

CBI don’t really know. I think the idea was mainly to have variety in the backups. It was a common template for older DC titles like Action Comics or Adventure Comics in the ‘60’s. One issue would have a Green Arrow backup, the next maybe Aquaman.

My own speculation is that as an editor, Paul was drawn to that kind of setup, and felt it gave the reader a little something extra. That’s just my own thought, he never told me that. But I know he was a comics fan, and I think he was glad to have a place where Enemy Ace could still fly through the pages of a DC Comic.

WOT: Given the wealth of material you dug up in the course of your research, it must have required considerable effort of concision to craft such spare chapters. Did you go through a lot of drafts?

I did struggle to find ways to get my stories into the six-page frame and did quite a few re-writes, trying to balance the pace so the story didn’t seem rushed but also had enough meat.

There were compromises, for sure. In what I considered to be one of the key stories, Clifford, still a neutral reporter, takes a rifle and kills an Axis soldier attempting to kill his English friend. I had been leading up to this decision since the beginning of the series. Here he is forced to admit that he is neither neutral nor objective as he thinks of himself.  I would have loved to have had a bit more room to let that sequence play out with more significance.

No doubt, I could have done a better job even in the space I had. In the end, I felt that it came out a bit weak and contrived.

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Now, let’s rejoin Wayne Clifford and his buddy Ed Barnes, who were, when we saw them last, off to the pub…

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That’s it for now! Stay tuned for the conclusion of our talk with Cary Burkett, along with part three of Dateline:Frontline’s London trilogy.

-RG

Dateline: Frontline – The Cary Burkett Interview, Part 1

« All studies of propaganda tell what a powerful weapon it is; that since armies fight as people think, it is essential to control that thought. This means some form of managing the news, and the only question is the degree to which the news should be managed openly and the degree to which it should be managed subtly. » ― Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Vietnam

In most collectors’ lives, there’s a degree of more casual, automatic accumulation. Things you pick up for a song, just because the opportunity arises, and that you file away, planning half-heartedly to look them over when you find the time. As a devoted Jerry Grandenetti fan, I always pick up his work… but I favour some genres over others. Mr. G has crafted, for instance, a lot of war comics for DC over the years (1952-1984!), most of which I haven’t seen. For me, it’s always been about his horror/mystery work. So… I had picked up, somewhere along the line, a consecutive pair of issues of DC’s Men of War (26 issues, 1977-80), numbers 9 and 10, featuring the first two parts of a Dateline: Frontline backup sequence, « Bathtub Blues » and « Glory Soldier ». I was very, very impressed.

Now, most of DC’s war books were scripted by a small cadre of authors, namely the indefatigable Robert Kanigher, as well as Bob Haney, Ed Herron, Jack Miller… but mostly Kanigher. In the Seventies, things changed a bit, with solid help and variety coming from Frank Robbins and David Michelinie on The Unknown Soldier, for instance. I had encountered Cary Burkett’s name here and there, being a regular reader of Batman titles The Brave and the Bold and Detective Comics, where he scripted backups (Nemesis, Batgirl) and the occasional lead feature. But this was… different. Hard-hitting, quite free from convention, and damn well buried in the back of a second-tier war book.

I hunted down the rest of the D:F series, and my initial impression did not fade… quite the contrary, indeed. The third serial (MoW 21-23), set on the Russian front, actually brought some tears to my eyes. Why was this feature so little-known? Oh, I know… the usual reasons. But I wanted to find out more, and the next logical step was to reach out to the series’ surviving author, who was happy to oblige, to my delight. And so here we are. The stage is yours, Mr. Burkett.

Dateline: Frontline recollections, by Cary Burkett

« Paul Levitz was editor of a new war comic called ‘Men of War‘ featuring a character called ‘Gravedigger’.  He wanted to have backup stories in each issue, and he came up with the title ‘Dateline: Frontline‘ and the idea that it would feature a war correspondent as the main character. I was working as his assistant at the time (1976), and he asked me to do a series of 3 six-page stories.

He pointed me toward a book called ‘The First Casualty‘ by Philip Knightley. The title was inspired by a famous quote ‘The first casualty when war comes, is truth‘.  The book was a history of war correspondents from early days of reporting through the Vietnam War. It became a basis for the new comic series in terms of setting up the inner dilemma of the main character, which was how to report ‘the truth’ in time of war.

I chose to set the series in World War II and named the main character Wayne Clifford. My idea was that he would begin his career as a war correspondent being very idealistic and naïve. Over the series of stories, he would come face to face with wartime situations which challenged his assumptions about news reporting, war, ‘truth’ and about himself.

That, in a nutshell, was the core of the series.  I chose to set the narration in first person, which I guess is pretty much the standard in comics now, but was not common then.

After the first 3 stories, Paul asked me to continue the series. But we kept the idea that the series would be done in groups of 3 related stories.

I did a lot of research to depict true, historic wartime settings which I hoped would show more aspects of war than to just have the hero ‘fight the enemy’ and stop the Führer’s latest grand plan.

Paul had gotten Jerry Grandenetti to be the artist on the series from the very beginning. I admit, when I first heard this, it didn’t thrill me. I was not that familiar with Grandenetti’s work, but I had seen a few stories he had done and had been put off a bit by his strange, exaggerated style.

But when I saw his art for my first DF story, I realized why he was such a respected artist. His expressionistic kind of style emphasized certain qualities that gave a distinctive mood to the story.

But what I felt the most strongly was that Grandenetti understood how to make the story flow. If you could let yourself be drawn into the visual universe he created, it would come alive. The sequences of images he created would merge into one storytelling stream.

I didn’t know at the time that Grandenetti had worked on The Spirit with Will Eisner, but that strong storytelling aspect of his art was what I responded to most when I saw Jerry’s work on my stories.

My Dateline:Frontline stories were done ‘full-script’, meaning I wrote out full panel-by-panel breakdowns for the artist to follow. And I could see how Jerry would take my panel descriptions and make them flow into each other. If I was going for a specific kind of pace or mood with a sequence, Jerry immediately knew what I was after, and knew how to emphasize it visually.

I worked with very few artists who had Jerry’s instinctive grasp of this and his skill for executing it. »

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Each Dateline: Frontline episode was conceived to stand on its own, but be part of a larger trilogy. This London entry, the series’ introduction, appeared in Men of War No. 4 (Jan. 1978). In part two of our talk with Cary Burkett, we’ll feature the second London chapter, « Human Interest Story » and our guest will generously answer some of WOT’s questions.

Incidentally, but not coincidentally, one hundred years ago today, on the 11th  of November, 1918, the Armistice of Compiègne was signed, formally ending the First World War. The event is commemorated each November 11 as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.

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This eloquent little tag appeared at the end of DC’s war stories, at least those edited by Joe Kubert, in the early 1970s.

Continue to Part 2 of the Cary Burkett interview.

-RG