Page Two: Otto Binder Had a Vision
The great science-fiction and comic book writer already had a name for Trump back in the 1950s – Bizarro
Two weeks of book reviews in this column does not mean it is evolving into something different. It's that both the graphic novel of the Apache wars, Indeh, reviewed last week, and Bill Schelly's biography of Otto Binder are so remarkably resonant right now.
These days, witnessing the current ongoing political season, one that gets stranger and stranger, has me thinking back to my early teenage years in New Jersey, where I befriended science-fiction writer and comic book writer Otto Binder. Always a freelancer, he worked for any number of books and characters: During the Golden Age he wrote for Captain America, The Human Torch, Shield, and Dollman and co-invented Kid Eternity, while in the Silver Age he co-created Supergirl and wrote the first Legion of Super-Heroes story, as well as most of the run of Mighty Samson. Otto's futuristic vision, sense of humor, and often ironic view are more appropriate now than ever. Along with Mad Magazine, there is no sharper satire being produced now as that work in the 1950s.
In the mid-Fifties Binder was writing a lot for DC Comics. It was a try-anything period – and they did. Among his contributions to the vast universe of Superman stories was co-creating Bizarro. And right now, listening to Trump and reading the vicious attacks on Clinton, you would think those Bizarro stories in Superman were based on Trump. Binder was a science-fiction writer and even a visionary, but I don't think he really expected his character to ever run for president.
Film and comic books were my two main passions growing up in New Jersey. Discovering through a fanzine when I was 14 that Binder lived in the town next to ours, I contacted him, asking for an interview (though I had no idea what I'd do with it). This led to a relationship that lasted until his death a decade later. One of the most prolific and well-known pulp science-fiction writers in the late 1930s, he wrote for every important SF pulp magazine, authoring hundreds of stories. His most well-known creation was Adam Link, a very sympathetically presented, self-aware robot, which was often misunderstood and persecuted by a world scared by the unknown. Later Binder adapted these stories both for EC Comics and Warren Publishing, with two episodes of the Outer Limits TV series based on Link, with Leonard Nimoy appearing in both.
Breaking into the new field of comic books by working at his brother Jack's shop, by early in the Forties he was writing them full-time. In 1942, he found a home at Fawcett Comics, where he reigned as one of the main writers on Captain Marvel. He was responsible for 986 scripts for Captain Marvel and his extended family out of an estimated total of 1,740 before Fawcett stopped publishing comic books in 1953. Guided by the team of artist C.C. Beck, editor Wendell Crowley, and writer Binder, Captain Marvel became more popular than Superman. No surprise there: In contrast to the overly staid Man of Steel, the stories of the Big Red Cheese boasted a tongue-in-cheek humor and somewhat whacked sense of just what could be gotten away with in comics. Led by the criminal genius of Mr. Mind, the Monster Society of Evil battled with the Captain over a 24-issue series. Wrapping up the run, it turned out that Mr. Mind was an alien worm.
By the late Fifties he worked most regularly for DC Comics. Alone and with others he was responsible for some of the best and weirdest Superman adventures, including ones featuring the villain Brainiac, the bottled Kryptonite city of Kandor, the Phantom Zone, Krypto the Super Dog, and Lion Head Superman. Writing the first imaginary tales, alternative takes on the world of Superman, he was critically involved in launching both Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane stand-alone comics. Interestingly, Binder – not consciously a feminist by any stretch – wrote a disproportionate number of comics featuring women heroes, including Mary Marvel and Freckles Marvel for Fawcett, Miss America and the Blonde Phantom for Timely Comics, as well as Lois and Lucy Lane, Supergirl, and Merry, Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks, for DC.
Many a Sunday I'd visited Otto, reading through his collection of Golden Age comics and SF pulps featuring his work, while he wrote. Having always been freelance, he was at his typewriter every day to cover the rent. When he finally finished we'd talk, him telling stories of his experiences as a science-fiction writer as well as working in comic books from when they first came into existence through the present. We'd go to comic book and science-fiction conventions in New York, which often meant hanging out in a bar with Stan Lee, catching up with Garner Fox and Jack Kirby and talking to Isaac Asimov. At one Lunacon, an NYC SF gathering, I slightly pushed Arthur C. Clarke, who was talking to Otto, out of the way so I could stare at Samuel Delany, then my favorite SF author. There was an intimacy to our relationship, constant talk scented with the smell of Binder's cigars.
Reading Otto Binder: The Life and Work of a Comic Book and Science Fiction Visionary (North Atlantic Books), Bill Schelly's terrific new edition of his biography of Otto, it provided the distance I certainly didn't have at the time. The range and extent of his achievements were even greater than I imagined. It wasn't until I read the book's first print run in 2003 that I realized he was an alcoholic, which made his bizarre driving in NYC more understandable if no less dangerous.
The incredible work he produced didn't prevent his life being haunted and tragic. The book painfully brought home my memory of the deepest tragedy, the afternoon when Castle of Frankenstein publisher and editor Calvin Beck called me at home, telling me he had been on the phone with Otto when the operator interrupted. His only daughter Mary, a sweet and golden girl, had been accidentally killed crossing the school yard. Otto and his wife were devastated. The great injustice of the comic book world was that the creative talents had always done work for hire, never owning their own creations or getting residuals for their work. Haunted by financial worries, this provided the most tragic climax. Though he would live for a number of years and continue to write, mostly paperback novels that were often adaptations of his old SF stories, his life was finished.
Schelly has become one of the most important comic book historians with his wonderful biography of Harvey Kurtzman having just won an Eisner. Detailing both the history of the industry as well as chronicling that of comic book fandom, his work evokes the wild ride of a medium that first came into its own in the late Thirties, but which has pushed boundaries and reinvented itself a number of times in the decades since. In many ways, Binder's story is also that of the first two and a half decades of comics, which Schelly eloquently brings home.
But today Binder's imaginative work seems not just prescient but among the sharpest if also unintentional cultural metaphors for this election race. In the mid-Fifties Superman had pretty much run through standard adventure possibilities and the stories began to get very wacky. One of Binder's contributions was Bizarro and Bizarro World (the creation is attributed to the artist and also to the writer of the Superman daily comic strip), which often reads as though it was written right now instead of decades ago. Bizarro was a sideshow funhouse mirror image of Superman, a Frankenstein-ish creation that couldn't speak, had limited intelligence, but did have bizarre superpowers. In so many ways, Trump is the Bizarro presidential candidate. A distinct perverse distortion of a presidential candidate, he owes more to comic books than policy papers. If only this was an all-in-color comic book creation rather than a depressingly viable, potential U.S. leader.