Monday, September 28, 2015

THE SECRET HISTORY OF GREENBERG THE VAMPIRE

In celebration of the release of Marvel's new edition of Greenberg the Vampire (on sale September 30th)—here's the introduction I wrote for the collection.  Enjoy!

***


I began my comic book career at DC Comics, working on their anthology books, writing five to eight page mystery stories—well, they called them mysteries, but they were really horror comics, a phrase that became anathema in the witch-hunting 1950’s—about vampires, werewolves, ghosts and assorted Things That Go Bump In The Night.  These short stories were a great way to learn the basics of the craft without being thrown into the deep end of monthly, twenty-two page comic book stories.

At one point, my editor, mentor and good friend Len Wein decided to add some ongoing series to two of his books, Weird War Tales (yes, there really was such a thing) and House of Mystery, and he asked me to come up with pitches for each.  I already had something in mind for Weird War, an idea I’d developed some months earlier called Creature Commandos (yes, there really was such a thing).  Len liked the pitch and we set to work developing the series.  For House of Mystery, Len had a title—“I…Vampire”—and tasked me with coming up with a story that would fit it.  I had that one on deck, too.

In the years before I broke into comics, I wrote a host of short stories—all of them hurled out into the slush piles of various magazines and subsequently hurled back—and one of them was a unique take on the vampire story:  “Savage Wolves” was the tale of a bloodsucker named Oscar Greenberg, a neurotic, reclusive Jewish writer—part Woody Allen, part Stephen King, part J.D. Salinger—who lived in New York’s fabled Dakota building, cursing his fate and dealing with (among other things) his annoying live-in nephew, his gorgeous vampire girlfriend, a very overprotective mother and an animated corpse.  As noted, “Savage Wolves” never sold to any magazine (although I do recall at least one very appreciative rejection), but, soon after writing the short story, I took a screenwriting course at The New School in Manhattan and used that as an opportunity to convert the Greenberg story into a movie script (well, the first fifty or so pages of one).  One of the things I discovered when I read the script aloud to the class was that it was funny—the dialogue got laughs, the good kind, which surprised me.  I knew the characters were experts at the kind of Brooklyn badinage that was part of my world growing up, but hearing the appreciative laughter of my classmates made me, dense person that I am, realize that what I was writing was a horror-comedy:  a mix of genuine scares and character-based humor.

So I trotted into Len’s office and told him the Greenberg tale, hoping he’d want to use it as the basis for the new “I…Vampire” series:  he didn’t.  Len was looking for classic horror, not a modern day version of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and so I came up with another pitch which, with Len’s guidance, became the “I…Vampire” that still haunts the DC Universe today.  

I forgot about Oscar Greenberg for a couple of years until, having made the pilgrimage from DC over to Marvel, I found myself sitting across the desk from Denny O’Neil, legendary writer, editor and one of the smartest humans to ever work in this business.  Denny was seeking one-shot stories for a black and white magazine called Bizarre Adventures and, once again, I dusted off the tale of my Jewish vampire, sketched it out for Denny and waited for him to reject it, as Len had.  To my delight, he didn’t.

Denny paired me up with the brilliant Steve Leialoha, who brought my script to life with a perfect blend of humanity, horror and whimsy.  The story appeared in an issue of B.A. that headlined an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Lawnmower Man” (since Oscar was partly inspired by King, that seemed fitting) and that, I thought, was that.

Except it wasn’t.

Soon after that issue of Bizarre Adventures saw print, people in the Marvel office started coming up to me to say how much they’d enjoyed “Greenberg”; telling me how funny, how offbeat, how unique it was.  I was delighted, but baffled.  Why was this story getting a reaction that none of my other Marvel work had?  I had no clue then, but, looking back, the answer is obvious:

I’d been at Marvel for over a year by the time the Greenberg story appeared, writing a number of monthly comics, trying desperately to evolve my craft—sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing spectacularly.  It’s not that the work was bad—well, some of it was, but I’m gratified to know that my runs on Defenders and Captain America are still held in high regard—it’s that my stories were a sometimes-obvious mixture of all my comic book influences:  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby via Steve Gerber, with hearty helpings of Thomas, Wein, Wolfman, Englehart, Moench and other writers whose work had inspired me along the way.  I hadn’t yet discovered a way to absorb those influences and filter them through my own distinctive point of view.  I hadn’t found my voice as a writer. 

With “Greenberg the Vampire,” I found it without even trying.  I wasn’t working within the confines (many of them, I later realized, self-imposed) of the Marvel Universe, playing with tried and true superhero tropes in a genre I loved perhaps a little too much.  I wasn’t creating a story reminiscent of some Old Classic I’d loved as a kid.  I wasn’t trying to be Kirby or Gerber (as if anyone but Kirby or Gerber could!):  I was just being myself.  Telling a tale that could only have come from me, in a voice that was uniquely mine.  

I was so excited about the way the story turned out, and the enthusiastic reception it received around the office, that I went to Jim Shooter—the extremely tall and extremely talented man who’d brought me to Marvel in the first place—to pitch him a Greenberg graphic novel.   Jim turned me down—and, really, who could blame him?  As a one-off in the back of Bizarre Adventures, “Greenberg the Vampire” was a fun little experiment.  A full-length story in Marvel’s high-end graphic novel line?  No way.

But a few years later—I can be a very patient man—my Marvel contract was coming to an end and I was negotiating a new deal with Jim.  Dick Giordano and Len Wein wanted me to come back to DC and offered me both Justice League and Swamp Thing.  My dear friend Karen Berger was very excited about an original idea I had, an eccentric space-fantasy called Moonshadow.  Given those parameters, there was no reason for me not to return to DC, except for the fact that I was happy at Marvel—enjoying the folks I was working with, the books I was writing—and didn’t feel a desperate need to leave.  Which is why I told Jim I’d be delighted to stay if he’d let me do two projects that would allow me to stretch myself creatively:  the aforementioned Moonshadow (which liberated me as a writer in ways I’d never expected, but that’s another introduction for another company) and, yes, the Greenberg the Vampire graphic novel. 

Jim, to his eternal credit, said yes to both and I began work on a new Greenberg story with a gifted young artist named Mark Badger.  We’d collaborated on a Gargoyle mini-series for Marvel that I remain very proud of and I saw something in Mark’s singular, iconoclastic style that was perfect for my tale of writer’s block, Hollywood seduction and the biblical mother of demons, Lilith:  Mark didn’t just meet my expectations, he transcended them.  Ann Nocenti—another huge talent and old friend—was our editor and she completely understood what Mark and I were going for, both verbally and visually.  Ann supported us, with great enthusiasm, every step of the way.

When the Greenberg graphic novel finally came out, it was no sales sensation—but, again, it was a work that a number of my fellow professionals took to heart.  The late, great Dwayne MacDuffie told me it was his favorite graphic novel:  he called it “Portnoy’s Complaint meets Dracula”—a better description than I could have ever come up with.  I heard from Peter David that Stan Lee—my childhood hero and probably yours, too—loved it, as well.  And I remember being summoned to a meeting with the Marvel Big Brass, where I was introduced to a wonderful man named Don Kopaloff who was, at the time, Marvel’s agent in the movie business.  (He later became my first agent, as well.)  The Brass loved Greenberg and wanted to see it developed as a film:  you can imagine how quickly I finished the half-written screenplay I’d had lying around for seven or so years. 

No, Greenberg never made it to the screen—considering that Marvel has completely conquered Hollywood, never say never, right?—but the two stories contained within this collection remain near and dear to my heart.  Without Oscar, Denise, Morrie, Ira and Mama, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying how happy I am to see these twin tales back in print.  Hope you enjoy them.

©copyright 2015 J.M. DeMatteis

52 comments:

  1. Including the "Bizarre Adventures" story! And this delightful introduction, which connects dots to create a brand-new constellation in my personal history of comics-reading.

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    1. As you can tell, Scott, I'm very excited about this book. Your enthusiasm is deeply appreciated!

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    2. What a delight it was stumbling across that magazine story in the '90s. I had no idea there was more "Greenberg" beyond that graphic novel!

      Also part of my discovery of Ann Nocenti, as I was just figuring out that I liked the books she edited and couldn't quite tell whether that was a coincidence of something I should be paying closer attention to.

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    3. Ann was, and is, a unique talent. She came to Marvel without much knowledge of comics and, as a result, she wasn't carrying the fannish baggage that many...well, most...of us were. She brought a fresh viewpoint and a singular perspective to all her work. She took to the comic book form with seeming effortlessness. And she's a helluva nice person, too!

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    4. When her name started showing up in writer credits, I figured there was more to her than just being the X-Men's majordomo. "Seeming effortlessness" is exactly how it looked from the outside. Re-reading her earliest comics, they flow with a grace and confidence that's either genius or the most astounding beginner's luck I've ever seen. And those "Classic X-Men" backups she wrote are tight and efficient comics poems. Maybe it was the editor in her, but I remember noticing that, the more technical challenges a Nocenti story had to overcome, the more satisfying the end product was.

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    5. "Comics poems" is a great way to describe Ann's work, Scott. She has a tone, rhythm and muse all her own.

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  2. Such a great story. Now I want a Greenburg movie. It seems that with the vampire movies and horror comedies being popular this would be a great movie for Marvel to make right now.

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    1. I think so, too, Douglas. Maybe a Netflix TV series...?

      I can dream, can't I?

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    2. As much as I loved Noah Baumbach's movie "Greenberg," I relished being able to answer my friend's "how did you like?" afterward with, "Worst comic-book adaptation since 'Karate Kid.'"

      I'd been making that dumb "Karate Kid" joke for a quarter century. Being able to make the "Greenberg" joke was so satisfying I hesitate to admit it — but how can I resist?

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    3. "Worst comic-book adaptation since 'Karate Kid.'" That's perfect, Scott!

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  3. Netflix, HULU, Amazon Prime; there are so many options and they all are begging for content. They gave Woody Allen a six episode series and he hasn't even written it yet!

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    1. Maybe Woody would like to direct GREENBERG...?

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  4. Pre-ordered & eagerly anticipated, JM!

    I agree, if this isn't prime movie material, then I don't know what is.

    Are there any other "lost" projects of yours that you'd especially like to see reprinted? For instance, will there ever be more "Seekers into the Mystery" collections? Would you ever want to continue the series itself?

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    1. Thanks for the pre-order, Tim! Very much appreciated!

      I'm in the process of negotiating a deal for a collected edition of SEEKERS right now (all fifteen issues together, which has never been done before). Would I like to write more? I'm not sure. If you'd asked me that ten years ago, I think the answer would be an enthusiastic "yes"; but so much time has passed, it would take some serious thinking to come up with a way back in.
      Certainly not out of the question.

      On the other hand, I think I could jump into new Greenberg stories instantly.
      Which probably makes no sense!

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    2. Well, that's great news! I really loved Seekers & was saddened to see it had such a short life. Still, I can understand how certain stories demand to be written NOW, and others seem to have their moment & then retire into the shadows ... at least for the time being, who knows what the future will bring?

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    3. When it comes to my own work, Tim, I'm often the LAST one to know!

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  5. I'm just going to wait for the collected SEEKERS then. Hunting down back issues can be a pain and this sounds way cooler in the collected format.

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    1. It probably won't see print for a year, Douglas, but considering how long it's been out of print, a year isn't much!

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  6. Funny that you mention Stephen King as part of the makeup. Wasn't that the issue that adapted the Lawnmower man?

    He did live in the Dakota, part of Dr. Fate took pl;ace there too if I recall correctly. Okay, I'm going to have to play the blind fool and ask why?

    Jack

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    1. The Dakota has a reputation as a "haunted" building. Add in its use in ROSEMARY'S BABY and the fact that John Lennon was murdered there...not to mention its celebrity clientele...and it seemed like a perfect place for Greenberg to live.

      And, yes, it was the issue that adapted "Lawnmower Man." I mention that in the essay.

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  7. Since Greenberg is considered cannon, it may not be long until we se him in a comic again.

    That'll be weird.

    I just found out in 1985 there may have been rumblings about Moonshadow being anti-Semitic. Also weird.

    Jack

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    1. I don't want to know.

      Re: Greenberg. If Marvel brings him back, I hope they have to good sense to let his creator write him!

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    2. Hopefully that is an "I don't want to know" of confusion.

      As For Greenberg, given the treatment of Howard the Duck, I wouldn't count on it. At best the creator will be asked to re-introduce him, then hand him off to someone else.

      The question is, are they releasing this trade to gear people up for an already planned return in some other book? What, its Halloween, there needs to be a scare. Especially terrifying because it is so probable, (over the top b-movie style) HAHAHAHAHAHA

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    3. Actually, they're releasing the trade because I suggested it and they thought it was a good idea!

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    4. That isn't unsettling in the least. I still wouldn't put it past Marvel. Poor Howard...


      I forgot to sign the last one.

      Jack

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    5. still embarrassing.


      Jack

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  8. Do you ever wish that you would have gotten a chance to write for one of the Warren publication?

    JAck

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    1. Actually, at the very beginning of my career, I sold a story (maybe two?) to Warren, but it was the end of their run and the stories never saw print.

      Thanks for the question—because I'd completely forgotten about it till you brought it up!

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    2. So, you're the one who casued Warren to come crashing down, effectively killing Spirit reprints, creepy, and Eerie.

      Did you take down Eclipse too, thus bringing indie books to the less weird subversive state they are at now. Come to think of it, you wrote for epic too. How many inde (or inde-ish) companies will you destroy?


      Also, Dr. Strange 1 came out yesterday.


      Jack

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    3. Never wrote for Eclipse, so you can't pin that one on me. And Epic folded some years after I was done with MOON and BLOOD, so I think I'm clear on that one, too!

      I was part of the Vertigo launch and they're still going, so do I get points for that?

      Let me know how DOC #1 is, if you read it.

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    4. Whether Vertigo is going is a complicated issue. Yes Vertigo exists, but since Berger left it is not quite the same. Vertigo always had a feel to it, if you catch my drift. I think they are trying to figure out how to recapture it or how to find a new one. So... complicated.

      As for Epic, it was a delayed reaction. I personally feel that part of the fall was that it was a mash-up of ideas, where as Vertigo always felt more united in that theme. And I'm not sure you didn't cause that.

      Eclipse. The link between the commerciality of modern "indie" books/ mainstream books and the more subversive and weird ideas of 70s Creepy, Eerie, and Star*reach(if you've never read Starlin's work in the first two issues, do) and the many small press comics of the 80s. Is till think there is a way to pin it on you though.

      As for Doc... as a long term fan, it was rough. No axe in the first double sized issue, but it was odd. They are going back to the early days of the character, and I mean early, where people come to him with problems. Which I actually found refreshing. It was a fairly under utilized idea after 1970, for sure... Hell, after Eternity made his appearance.

      However, saying that he thought a demoness "digs him" and being called a dog by scarlet witch (who he talks to with a gang of mystic pals at a mystic bar) does not seem right for the character. I don't remember a whole lot of women in Doc's life aside from Clea, especially enough to justify him saying that there is just as likely of a chance an ex would kill him as Dormammu.

      It is only 1 issue in, but it does seem like my fears of him being severely de-aged in one way or another were justified. However, since he is one of my top 5 guys, and I'm an addict I will keep buying. Hopefully it will even out.

      However; I also don't like the current Silver Surfer series (another top 5 addiction). It feels too much like Dr. Who, taking away a bit of what made the Surfer special. And people seem to like that book just fine. So either my opinion doesn't matter since I'm so out of sync, or people are fine with characters being changed as long as they are fringe characters they never really read.


      Jack

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    5. Also, (assuming my first post went through) I'm not sure Vertigo belongs in the category of the rest. The Warren Publications, Star*Reach, Eclipse, First, and even Epic were like the wild west of writing comics. There seemed to be fewer rules. It was a scattershot of styles, voices ad concepts with often only the slightest necessity of say Sci-Fi or Fantasy binding them together.

      In many ways I think Epic was specifically to compete with Eclipse and First. Much like the tabloid sized magazines Marvel did in the 70s were inspired by the likes of Creepy and Eerie. As such a similar practice seemed to be introduced.

      Vertigo on the other hand was more like the first of the new. here was a feel that seemed to have to be there in Vertigo books. I don'yt know if that makes sense to you, but you could bring me a comic without a cover, that I never read from Vertigo in its prime, and I could tell you if it was or was not a Vertigo comic.

      That idea has been adopted by (or perhaps simply produced under similar circumstances) by Image, Dark Horse, Slave Labor Graphics, you name it. They all have their in house styles now. I isn't bad, and to an extent it has always been there, albeit before 1990 it was due to a smaller creative pool.

      Its just that those wild west days are seemingly over. It isn't good, nor necessarily bad. It is a loss though. To be fair though, all of our culture has gotten like that, more compartmentalized and strategic. It is just more visible in comics because it had a giant growth spurt that most creative systems don't


      So, I hope your proud of yourself for killing that.

      Jack

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    6. These characters keeps changing and, inevitably, returning to their roots.

      I haven't read the new Surfer, but I do have great respect for Dan Slott, a terrific writer. And, yes, I've heard that it's become very Dr. Who-ish.

      In many (most?) ways. Karen Berger WAS Vertigo, so I can understand the difficulties the imprint may be having finding a new identity.

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    7. I don't think Vertigo had a "house style," Jack—but there was a shared sensibility, because all those projects were chosen by Karen Berger. So her TASTE was reflected in those books, but, in terms of creative expression, there was incredible creative freedom for the writers and artists.

      That said, an editor with a defining POV can certainly create a distinctive feeling for their line of books. It's rare these days—but Karen was pretty much born with a distinctive POV. As you probably know, we were friends before either of us worked in comics and I opened the door for her at DC. Karen, of course, kept that door open with her vast talent.

      I'm incredibly proud of what she achieved.

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    8. House style may not be proper, feel is more like it. It becomes complicated though, since so many of the early British Invasion writers started there and they were coming from there own pool, it may have set a style in the minds of fans which sales reflected or some such.

      However, if we look at a comic Vertigo put out you probably never heard of, "The Last One," it was very much in line with the writers style, with no feeling that compromise needed to be made. Still, it was a Vertigo book through and through.

      It was absolutely Karen Berger, I know because the tone and feel changed the month after she stepped down.

      Like I said, it isn't a bad thing to have that aspect, as long as it is done well, and with balance. Vertigo had that. Hopefully it will again. I'm glad it had that feel.


      Jack

      also...

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    9. Dan Slott has put out some interesting stuff. His thing series was good. I enjoyed Superior Spider-Man for most of it. I actually thought the Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows mini-series was really good, and am comfortable saying it is the las Spider-Man story ever in my mind (at least for now).

      As much as I like Mike Allred's art, I can't really get behind the new Surfer series. I am fine with the lighter tone, except when people say ti is the only thing that ever made him a good character, its just when everything comes together (especially a board that communicates by reflection) it just seems like it should be in a Dr. Who comic. It doesn't mena the quality is bad.

      Jack

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    10. "Feel" is the perfect word, Jack.

      THE LAST ONE? Hmmm. Sounds familiar. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, there's a new hardcover edition of that series coming from IDW next year. But don't tell anyone I told you.

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    11. I've always impressed with Dan's work, and with the enthusiastic guy BEHIND the work. He clearly loves what he's doing and communicates that enthusiasm in his stories.

      Re: the Surfer. You bring up an interesting point: Can we dislike the direction a series is taking and yet appreciate the stories on their own terms?

      By the way: Dan is a MASSIVE Doctor Who fan. But you probably knew that.

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    12. "I've always BEEN impressed with Dan's work." Once again, typing too fast!

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    13. I absolutely think that is possible to dislike an idea, but respect what it is. Partially becaise I just did, but also I don't really segment quality or cut slack based on genre or medium, good is good, what I like is what I like. I also never really see a point in automatically say if I don't like something it is bad, I think this comes from liking things like sci-fi, comics, and so on, which is often looked own on. It is odd considered how much that view comes out in such areas. It is why I have problematic conversations since I agree Neil Gaiman is a talented writer, but his style is hardly my favorite and that Alex Ross is clearly very talented, but the way he draws and the tones and ideas shown don't always strike a chord with me. I don't thin they're bad, I just don't hold them in as personal high regard as others. This is why I would either be the worst or greatest critic ever.

      Admittedly with a character like the Surfer who I love and has a long history it is a bit strange, but I think I come out sticking to those guns, especially since with one rather big exception (misunderstanding the nature of Silver Surfer and Galactus' relationship) the Silver Surfer's character is mostly pretty good.

      As for the Vertigo feel, it is great, but with things like John Constantine, irt is a double edged word. The first mainstream John Constantine series was in no way badly written (even f that reworking the origin was a very bad idea in my eyes) but for those who read Hellblazer it was a culture shock for sure. It very well may have caused problems with sales (personally it was all the crossovers that finally got me to drop it rather far down the line though). The point is that everything has a cost. Though in the case of Vertigo, the pros come out very much on top. Next time you talk to your pal Karen Berger, you can tell her there are fans who still love that style and crave it. I actually asked the guys at my local shop to recommend Vertigo stories I may have missed a few months back. She is certainly missed in comic shops. Though I do think (read hope?) the new Vertigo is finally starting to find its legs. However, it isn't the same feel, sadly that is probably a time capsule thing now. You can't say the fans didn't appreciate it and Ms. Berger while it lasted.

      Jack

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    14. Totally agree. Many times I read a book or see a movie that just isn't in my wheelhouse and yet I can deeply appreciate the craft, and art, that went into its making.

      I think (hope!) Karen B knows how much she's appreciated and what a massive footprint she left at DC. I'm also sure that there are great things ahead for her.

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  9. I won't be heading to a comic store until next Friday, but I am curious on the new Dr. Strange as well as many other new titles coming out. I would be interested in what your take on Vampirella would have been. Also, Cartoon Network confirmed the new Justice League cartoon and Justice League Dark is still going to be made.
    It's a pretty good FRiday.

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    1. I think JL DARK could make a fantastic movie. Looking forward to that one (although I suspect we have quite a wait).

      I don't think I've read more than one or two Vampirella stories in my life, if that much, so I have no take to offer.

      Heard about the new JL cartoon. Very curious about it. Meanwhile, everyone should be watching BE COOL, SCOOBY DOO! on Cartoon Network. I'm working on my fifth episode right now.

      And that concludes our morning plug!

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  10. I am going to watch the new Scooby Doo series. Now I have two reasons to do so. The other one is Kate Micucci. I watch anything she does. A very talented young lady.

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    1. She is indeed, Douglas. And the PERFECT voice for Velma.

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    2. Ince you apparently writing Scooby Doo, could youdo me a favor? Expalin why if Shaggy was created in 1996 he is a beatnik, or why in 2015 he's a beatnik.


      Jack

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    3. I think you meant 1969, not 1996!

      My understanding is that the entire Scooby cast was based on the cast of the old 60's sitcom DOBIE GILLIS, with Shaggy being based on Maynard G. Krebs, Beatnik Supreme. (Played by Gilligan himself, Bob Denver.)
      There's a thin line between beatnik and 60's hippie and a current-day hipster. That said, I think they just wanted their version of Maynard and, being a cartoon character, he's stayed that way. And he's stayed that way so long that he's no longer a beatnik, he's just Shaggy.

      Didn't expect a serious answer to that one, did you?

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    4. I did mean 1969. What's more, I'm not sure that line is so thin.

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    5. It all makes perfect sense now. The G in Maynard G. Krebs stood for Gilligan. He started going by his middle name as he went into hydro-tourism. Tragedy strikes, he winds up on an island, but eventually gets off. He develops a new fear of "WORK!?" Now it is more of post-traumatic stress endevour, since he was the only survivor. He finds kids similar to his old pals, all of whom had gone there own separate ways.

      So, here he is, once again in his beatnik ways, only he's out of time and lost because he had missed so much. What's more he is hanging out with kids a good decade younger than him. He then has to hang out with the the dog since he can't relate, and the over-eating everyone thinks is drug related, is actually combating massive depression.


      It all makes sense.


      Jack

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    6. Thanks for starting my day with a laugh, Jack. That was brilliant!

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    7. Glad I could do my little part...but think about it. It. All. Adds. Up.

      Jack

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