O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
(Editor’s Note: Tom is on his way to San Francisco and WonderCon this week, so he turned his column in early … and as it relates to legendary artist and editor Dick Giordano, who passed away on Saturday, I thought it was appropriate to go ahead and post it today.)
By now you will undoubtedly have read any number of Dick Giordano obituaries, tributes and/or remembrances, most I’m sure speaking from a much more informed perspective than mine. I am only a fan, and specifically an admirer of his success across various areas of the comics business.
It was easy to spot Dick Giordano’s work, whether penciled or inked. He did not go in for much caricature or exaggeration, but there was invariably a twinkle in his characters’ eyes. (The exception, naturally, was Batman, whose cold white slits often burned menacingly against his black-inked mask.) As an inker, Giordano’s style came through clearly over other people’s pencils, but because it was inherently naturalistic it was never oppressive. Instead, he was a good complement to a wide range of artists, from the elegant lines of José Luis Garcia-Lopéz to the gritty expressionism of Denys Cowan. Of course, he was a fine penciller in his own right, with some 1450 stories to his credit.
One of those, the classic “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley,” derives much of its power from an iconic Giordano splash page. Although dominated by Batman’s profile, the reader’s eye is drawn instantly to the scene’s details: the worn-down tenements, lonely streetlamps, and desolate theater — and most importantly to the stooped, solitary figure at its center. It is a haunting, evocative image which describes a setting both familiar and strange within the world of the Batman. Sure, he’d fought (and Giordano had drawn him fighting) any number of goons, thugs, and supervillains on streets not too different from this one. Regardless, Giordano’s composition of this page, including his use of light and perspective, establishes immediately that this is not the normal Batman story. What’s more, it stands alone well, complemented by but not reliant upon Denny O’Neil’s justifiably-famous narration.
“No Hope’s” splash panel is a good example of Giordano’s skill, and it is memorable for many reasons. To me, though, Dick Giordano’s staying power comes from his dependability. Giordano, like his stylistic brethren Irv Novick and Dick Dillin, was able to translate reality into sequential art efficiently and effectively, thereby giving the reader a solid structure from which his belief could be suspended. Seeing Giordano’s name in the art credits was always reassuring, because Giordano’s fundamentals were so sound. He was to Batman what Curt Swan was to Superman: a constant presence which helped establish the character’s visual language for a generation of readers.
Accordingly, if Dick Giordano were remembered only for his contributions to Batman comics, he might well have been happy just with that. It was obvious from reading his editorials (and other essays on the subject) that Batman was Giordano’s favorite character, so I imagine he enjoyed his brief time (1981-82) editing the Bat-titles.
However, Giordano’s twelve years as DC’s Executive Editor (1982-94, following a short stint as Managing Editor) transformed the publisher, bringing it out of the Silver Age and diversifying it through multiple imprints like Piranha Press (later Paradox Press), Milestone Media, and Vertigo. It was an eclectic period, featuring everything from blockbusters like Crisis On Infinite Earths, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen to the more idiosyncratic ’Mazing Man, Nathaniel Dusk, and Thriller. Any number of professionals put their unique stamps on DC’s characters: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol, George Pérez’s Wonder Woman, John Byrne’s Superman. Several comics professionals came over (or returned) to DC, including Byrne, Miller, O’Neil, Moore, Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Roger Stern, Archie Goodwin, Mike Carlin, Mike Gold, John Ostrander, and Tim Truman. DC was seen as more creator-friendly than Marvel, and Giordano’s style was a big part of that. Along with President Jenette Kahn and Publisher Paul Levitz, Giordano signed a letter asking Marvel to return Jack Kirby’s original pages to him. (Regardless, as Tom Spurgeon reminds us, Giordano was also at the heart of DC’s mid-1980s “ratings system” controversy.)
A few months ago I wrote about one of Giordano’s “Meanwhile…” editorials which had become ingrained in my own feelings about corporate superhero comics. Warts and all, at its heart it is still a good mission statement for a publisher whose business must navigate some very tricky waters. As I said then, the superhero-comics game has changed profoundly since 1984, such that some of Giordano’s points have become moot and others run counter to today’s business models; but the fundamentals of his pro-diversity argument remain sound. Although Giordano’s marketplace was moving away from generally-available newsstand distribution, he saw the value in always trying to reach that wider audience.
Those “Meanwhile…” columns also gave Giordano an open, welcoming personality. They seemed thoughtful and genuine, and when they had to discuss unpleasant business (like why JLA/Avengers initially failed), Giordano sounded more regretful than anything. Again, in those days, DC’s editors didn’t have to deal with such intense news cycles and weren’t nearly as accessible, so crafting such benign personae was arguably a lot easier.
(For example, the Crisis On Infinite Earths Compendium reproduces this handwritten memo to Jenette Kahn:
Can we kill Supergirl in Crisis. I must know soon.
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
[ ] Only if we have a new Supergirl soon
[ ] None of the above
I have to say, despite its ghoulish subject, that note has a certain third-grade-do-you-like-me charm. However you think it would be received today, though, one thing is certain: that is the memo of a man who does not have to deal with the Internet.)
Indeed, I think much of the real Dick Giordano came through in his “Meanwhiles,” and their easygoing accessibility made him an excellent corporate figurehead in the eventful years immediately before, during, and after Crisis On Infinite Earths. For someone like me, suckered in by Crisis’ carnage and eager to see what DC would do with it, Dick Giordano made a fine tour guide.
Ultimately, I’ll remember Dick Giordano’s steady hands, whether they were drawing Sarge Steel or Batman, embellishing Neal Adams or John Byrne, or guiding DC Comics into unfamiliar territory (and making the familiar seem new).
Thank you, Mr. Giordano, for all the good afternoons.