Thursday, August 26, 2010

Arnold Drake

The month of August is nearly gone, and I still have a batch of questions asked at the beginning of this month to answer.

First up, Sean Cloran asked me my thoughts on the late Arnold Drake (1924 - 2007). For those of you who don't know who Drake was, he was a writer, mostly of comic books, but also novels, a pair of movies and several musicals.

The bulk of Drake's comic book work comes from the 1960s. Since I didn't begin purchasing comics until 1971 or 1972, and since reprints were pretty rare still (except for at Marvel which is how I was able to Grow-up on Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man and the Kirby/Ditko giant monster comics) I missed all of this work as a kid. I didn't discover Arnold Drake until 1984-1985, when I came across some of his DOOM PATROL comics while scour back issue bins for back issues of my favorite childhood comic book series, TUROK: SON OF STONE. The first two issues I purchased were these:

The weirdness displayed on these covers captured me right away, and what was on the inside not only lived up to what was on the cover, but exceeded it. Everything about it appealed to me including Bruno Premiani's gorgeous art, to the characters who acted in many ways like the bickering family that was THE FANTASTIC FOUR, but there was something else going on here. Except for the Chief, the wheelchair bound genius who led the Doom Patrol and served as a father figure to the other members, everyone else was like Ben Grimm. Size-expanding Rita Farr, who was unhappily married to a wealthy man with powers of his own, Larry Trainer who had to wear specially treated bandgaes so that he didn't irradiate everyone around him with the negative energy spirit that inhabited his translucent body,  Cliff Steel, a disembodied brain inhabiting a robot body, and even Gar Logan, a green skinned boy who could physically transform into any animal (which were all green too) all wanted normal lives for themselves rather than acting as misfit superheroes to a world that shunned them. This fit exactly into my affinity for the movie PINOCCHIO, and would be a running theme throughout almost all of my work. There was something about these characters that looked like superheros (offbeat superheroes) but didn't act like them, and rarely used their superhero names, which resonated with me. This was the sort of comic book I wanted to write. Especially when compared to much of the superhero comics being published just before the lightning struck in 1986 with THE WATCHMEN, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and MAUS.

When I was writing XOMBI back in the 90s, it was often compared with Grant Morrison's run on DOOM PATROL which finished shortly before. People often cite Morrison's work as an influence on me. This is not the case, or at least, not in the way anyone thinks. My first work in comics was in the late 1980s at Marvel, and much of the stuff I was pitching was very similar in tone and content to work I'd later be known for. Back then, it was rejected as being too strange. At Marvel, Chris Claremont and John Byrne still ruled the day, and my weird stuff never really got anywhere except for the occassional WHAT IF...? gag such as "What if Nick Fury was an Agent of Captain America's Shield." Then I saw Grant Morrison's DOOM PATROL, which was very much like Arnold Drake's Doom Patrol, and I thought, "How come this guy is getting to write comics that I'm not allowed to?" Any similarity between Grant's work on my own was merely because we were reading the same books and watching the same movies and clearly had a similar mindset. The real influence he had on me was seeing that you COULD get the kind of stories I wanted to tell published, and after a hard fought, if unsuccessful attempt to take over the writing duties on DOOM PATROL after Grant departed, I finally found a home for this brand of storytelling with XOMBI.

Why do I love Arnold Drake? Let the following DOOM PATROL speak for me.

His impact on me didn't stop with the Doom Patrol (which was his favorite project). Not only did he create the Doom Patrol, but he also created STANLEY AND HIS MONSTER and DEADMAN for DC Comics. Deadman was a superhero who was once an aerialist who was murdered, and while he could not physically interact with our world, or communicate with anyone directly, and remained invisible to the living, isolating him from humanity (much like the members of the Doom Patrol) he could possess the living, and speak and act through them. Drake really wanted to use this character to cash in on the interest 1960s youth had in Eastern Spiritualism, and use the series as a means to illustrate the differences and similarities between our world and the afterlife, but DC didn't allow that.

STANLEY AND HIS MONSTER was a humorous boy and his dog story only with a monster instead of a dog. Drake wrote as many humorous comics including stories for DCs BOB HOPE and JERRY LEWIS comics as he did his science fiction and superheroic ones. Usually he combined the two, and quite successfully. Bob Hope, for example, was done as a comedy-adventure much like Bob Hope's early movies. With only a few exceptions, I typically graft humor onto whatever type of story I'm writing.

Drake also created THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY for Marvel. While I wouldn't encounter Drake's handling of these characters until I was an adult, these were favorite characters of mine from the time I laid eyes on them in 1974s MARVEL TWO IN ONE #5 and I became somewhat obsessed with them as a child.

Drake wrote many other comic book stories as varied as the X-MEN, LITTLE LULU, STAR TREK, DARK SHADOWS, and even WELCOME BACK KOTTER among many others. The remaining title that he wrote for that had an important impact on me, was for DC's HOUSE OF SECRETS where he wrote a number of stories starring Mark Merlin, Sleuth of the Supernatural. It was a character he didn't really care for, which is understandable. Mark Merlin was a rich, handsome, supernatural investigator, who accompanied by his fiance, Elsa and their cat would travel around investigating many strange phenomena. Some were hoaxes, but others were quite real and could only possibly be defeated by a particular magic amulet that Merlin happened to have on him. In 1990, I pitched a greatly revamped version of this to DCs Vertigo imprint. It was rejected. I realized that I had changed it radically enough that it wasn't really Mark Merlin, and then changed it a bit more. I pitched it as a television series in 1991 and was told more than once that no one was going to want to watch a tv series in which a man and a woman investigated the paranormal every week. In 1993 a TV series called THE X-FILES debuted.  I then brought it back to comics, this time at Milestone Media where it was originally going to be a spin-off series from XOMBI about a wealthy, glamourous married couple who investigated the paranormal named Adam and Julia Kadmon. XOMBI was cancelled and Milestone slowly wound to an end shortly afterwards. Finally, it found it's way back to Vertigo as MIDNIGHT, MASS..

So, I have nothing but praise and affection for Arnold Drake, a man I, regretfully, never met and never got to thank. He was an innovator. I can only imagine what coming across the  DOOM PATROL must have been like at a time when bombastic Jack Kirby-style comics ruled at Marvel, and stately, formal Wayne Boring artwork still commanded at DC. Drake's writing came across with a concise relaxed ease that contrasted with Stan Lee's narrative style that sometimes seemed desperate to grab you by the throat, yet was always exciting, especially when paired with Premiani's gorgeous art which was expressive and strange without being flashy, a combination that only served to make the odd odder. And how could you not have a crush on his Rita Farr?

Drake is also responsible for IT RHYMES WITH LUST.  His writing contribution to the first American graphic novel in 1950 generally takes a back seat to its groundbreaking status for being the first graphic novel, and to it having been illustrated by Matt Baker, the first African-American comic book artist to become prominent in mainstream comic books. Drake wrote the screenplay for WHO KILLED TEDDY BEAR? which starred Sal Mineo and Juliet Prowse, and wrote, produced, and directed THE FLESH EATERS that has the same strange quirky sensibilities found in much of his comic book work.

If I could, I'd have a bust of Arnold Drake perched on a shelf above my computer. Since I can't, I'll leave you with a quote from Arnold Drake taken from an interview by Katherine Keller for Sequential Tart:

I had always wanted to switch the "Oh, it was only a dream!" ending of a story. I wanted it to come out "Oh, it was only reality!" 

and this:

Just one of many, many more reasons I love Arnold Drake.



Michael Jones said...

I'd read or seen many of those stories yet I was completely unaware of the author's name. Now, I'll never forget.

Unknown said...

Mr. Rozum, don't forget the creation of the character whose stories allowed the character to serve as "Mary Worth" (from the comic strips), by going in and having answers to everyone's problems: Deadman.

Mr. Drake was a kind and incredibly insightful writer. DC lost a great talent in the nonsense of the late 1960s, when it came to giving its employees benefits.

Robert Pope said...

GREAT post, pal.

Sean Cloran said...

Great post, Thanks for the answer. Drake is one of the best.