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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Heroes Die Hard!

Couple of things –

First – in 1978, I created a superhero character named the Red Tiger. He was nothing if not unoriginal; largely derived from a deservedly obscure and even more justly short lived Atlas Comics hero named Tiger-Man (wretchedly written by Gerry Conway, beautifully drawn by Steve Ditko) whose second issue I’d snatched up when I found it on the bottom of the magazine rack at the hole in the wall drugstore in the tiny little town of Holland, NY.

As imagined by my sometime high school collaborator and never-quite-friend Jim Marek, the Red Tiger looked like a fat free refugee from a 1930s wrestling film, togged out as he was in a crimson wife-beater, crimson tights, and crimson swimming trunks snugged down tautly over his manly areas, accented with tigerskin boots, gloves, and headband circling the upper edge of his mask where it merged into his hairline.

The Red Tiger was a grim n’ gritty urban crusader type of hero; a roof-leaping creep-pummeler in the classic Batman/Spider-Man mold. He lived, loved, vaulted across rooftops and kicked thug ass in Chicago, because, you know, I was trying to be different (although I suppose not that different, since Marvel had only a few years previous to this test-flown a female superhero named the Cat who operated in Chicago, and for all I remember, Tiger-Man may well have been set there too), and similarities to Tiger-Man continued in that my Red Tiger also had claws built into his gloves (unlike the rather sociopathic Tiger-Man, however, he didn’t use them on actual people; they were there to help him scale the sheer sides of tall buildings).

If there was anything non-derivative about the Red Tiger, it lay in his origin sequence. In the first three pages of RED TIGER #1, I’d scripted a sequence in which a bunch of crooks were hanging around on a skyscraper rooftop doing ‘crook stuff’ (I’m fairly sure I didn’t bother getting more specific; I wasn’t all that analytical or introspective about the clichés of comic book plotting back then). The Red Tiger showed up and began beating holy hell out of them, as superheroes are wont to do. Suddenly, a shot rang out – a concealed rifleman had just shot Chicago’s premier superhero in the head! Killed instantly, the Red Tiger toppled from the tower, falling sixty stories to the unyielding pavement below. But, in a big splash panel, I cautioned the reader not to lose heart, because even in Chicago – “HEROES DIE HARD!”

After which, I had the Red Tiger’s roommate stumble across a secret closet full of Red Tiger costumes, along with a syringe full of the experimental serum that had given the Red Tiger his super powers. Thus, this mook (his name was Eric Tellins) decided to become a new Red Tiger, and take up where his now dead roommate had left off.

As I say, in 1978 I wasn’t particularly analytical or introspective, but even I recognized there was something pretty workable, if not outright cool, in this concept. You had, essentially, a novice superhero who really didn’t know a frickin thing about being a costumed crusader for justice, taking over the mantle of a long established, well respected mystery man who was generally hated and feared by the local underworld. The new guy would be walking into an extremely dangerous situation; my assumption was that the original Red Tiger had been around for as long as any of the other contemporary DC or Marvel characters, and had built up an impressive Rogue’s Gallery of his own, any of whom would have grudges against him… all of which the new guy would naturally have to deal with.

Even then, I was savvy enough to have plans for future stories in which the new Red Tiger would be guided by his deceased roommate’s secret diaries, allowing cool flashback sequences which would be narrated in the voice of the first Red Tiger, (with those cool captions using a cursive font to simulate handwritten journal entries) and I even figured I could occasionally do a back up series called Untold Tales of the Original Red Tiger.

Ah, the ambition of youth.

Jake and I did one issue of the Red Tiger together, and honestly, I was so non-plused by the generic, uninspired pencils Jake turned in that it rather put me off working with him again (although we did eventually do one more comic book together, a sad-ass Killraven rip off called Rebel, Fighter For Freedom From The Far Flung Future, in which Earth had been conquered by aliens, and a future human civilization, knowing from their historical texts that this had been our planet’s darkest hour, had genetically engineered a super soldier and sent him backwards in time to lead mankind’s rebellion against their evil alien overlords).

(The inset, by the way, is not the original Jake Marek drawn Red Tiger page. For one thing, we couldn't afford a colorist and didn't want to do it ourselves; for another, I lost my copies of the issues long long ago. So that page is one I whomped up in a couple of minutes in between calls at work today, using the generic Windows Paint program, because sometimes, a picture really is worth any number of words, even a really really badly drawn one.)

When I arrived at college and met, among many others, Kurt Busiek, he and I exchanged descriptions of the many and varied characters we’d created and the comics we’d written back in high school. To my surprised pleasure, Kurt (who seemed much more knowledgeable and experienced than I did, back then) seemed delighted by the Red Tiger, often referring to the character in conversation over the succeeding years, drawing him in various sketchbooks, coming up with dialogue for him, suggestions for possible stories… he really seemed to like the guy. He liked the costume, the powers, the gimmick with the protagonist being a replacement hero… he even liked the first issue tag line “Heroes Die Hard!”

It was all rather heady for me.

That’s one thing.

Now, here’s something I wrote about Kurt Busiek’s Astro City about six years ago, on an Internet chat board:

Done any work in the Golden or Silver Age on a superhero comic? Want a quick reassurance that it was, in any way, marketable or of the slightest enduring appeal? Check out ASTRO CITY. Chances are, if you created a character or wrote a plot in superhero comics at any time prior to 1980 that was any good at all, you'll find Kurt Busiek has filed the serial numbers off it, slapped a fresh paint job on it, and written a three issue story arc around it... and if it was really good, well, hell, Kurt might have an Eagle Award that belongs to you sitting on his mantle, and if you ask him really nicely, maybe he'll let you look at it for a few seconds.

The list of creators outright plagiarized by my old college buddy in Astro City is, in my opinion, voluminous. When you add in the number of comic book writers and artists whose work Kurt has ‘re-imagined’ in Astro City, but where said ‘reimagining’ might fall short of actual creative larceny and simply dwell within the vague, fuzzy margins of what many refer to in the trade as ‘homage’, well, as I note above, there are quite a few people who might very well feel, with some validity, that Kurt Busiek should at least share some of his many Eagle and Eisner Awards with them.

Members of this list of folks whose work has been 'homaged' by the Great Man include such auspicious names as Jerry Siegel, Joe Schuster, Cary Bates, Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Steve Ditko, Alan Moore, Marv Wolfman, Denny O’Neil, Carmine Infantino, John Broome, Gardner Fox, Joe Simon, Neil Gaiman… all the biggies. Quite a few of the not so biggies, too.

Never until recently, though, did I think to find myself included in such an august company.

However, as I’ve mentioned prior to this, I’ve been borrowing some Astro City TPBs from the library lately, and wasn’t I surprised to turn a page in the Local Heroes collection last night to find this li’l fella snarling at me:

Men call him… The Crimson Cougar.

Now, let’s be fair: this character isn’t a real superhero; within the fictional reality of Astro City, the ‘Crimson Cougar’ is a fictional character himself, an imaginary superhero appearing on a local Astro City soap opera called Tomorrow’s Dawn. Other than the name, he bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Red Tiger.

But the name is pretty startling… so much so, in fact, that I find it impossible to believe Kurt didn’t create the character while specifically recalling the Red Tiger.

It’s odd, and disorienting, to find a character you’d thought was yours… that, however derivative it may have been, still, that you knew you yourself had created, that has lived in your head and in your private papers and in your sketchbooks for decades, whose existence you had only shared previously with a handful of friends… a character and a concept that in any moral or ethical sense, inarguably belongs to you… suddenly show up, in altered but still very recognizable form, in someone else’s work, without the slightest credit being given to you.

It seems my old buddy Slappy is still slapping me around… even if he and I are the only people who realize it.

I guess, in a way, though, it’s flattering to find one of my concepts hanging around in the same room as so many characters created by Lee, Kirby, Kane, Ditko, Siegel, Schuster, and Simon’s.


At 7:49 AM , Blogger SuperFiancee said...

Just out of curiosity, how long has the Crimson Cougar been around?

At 11:14 AM , Blogger Highlander said...

He showed up in ASTRO CITY #22, originally published sometime in 2000. Well before I pissed Kurt off with my ASTRO CITY post. For whatever that's worth.


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