Saturday, June 13, 2020

In Memory of Dennis O'Neil, Writer Extraordinaire

Scott D. Parker

[In lieu of the post I was going to write, I'm going to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of a comic book legend. Dennis O'Neil is easily one of the people you'd put on the Mt. Rushmore of Batman creators. I mean, he and Neal Adams are instant members of the Batman Hall of Fame. As good as the artwork of Adams was, the words of O'Neil gave the character depth and humanity. He did the same for Green Lantern and Green Arrow fifty years ago at the dawn of the Bronze Age of Comics. Then, in the 1980s, as the editor of the Batman titles, he steered the transition into our Modern Age, as comics 'grew up' and took on more mature topics.

In interviews, O'Neil often discussed his own personal demons and how he overcame them and his love of pulp fiction (especially The Shadow). But I really appreciated his workmanlike take on the job of writing. Yes, he can often spin words brilliantly, but he always showed up, rolled up his sleeves, and did the work.

I had already pulled my trade paperback of the famous Hard Travelin' Heroes storyline from Green Lantern (on its fiftieth anniversary), but yesterday, I pulled out my heretofore unread copy of The Question. I've always heard great things. Time to read up.

The following was published in 2018 and you'll easily see why I'm posting it. Rest in peace, Mr. O'Neil. Your stories are timeless.]

To commemorate the end of summer 2018, let’s take a trip back forty years.

The summer of 1978 was smack dab in the middle of one of my favorite pockets of my life. You see, Star Wars had debuted the year before and it consume much of my imagination. It had awakened in me a love for all things science fiction and I sought out as much as I could, eventually discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. I had discovered the rock and roll superheroes known as KISS through their albums, comics, and trading cards. And every issue of Circus or Hit Parader magazine I could find.

And, of course, there was the constant: comic books. I have memories of certain issues—where I bought them; what kind of day it was—but not all. Interestingly, as summer 2018 wound down, I was drawn to a forty-year-old comic of which I have no memory buying at the time. But I also have no memory of buying it in the years since, so it’s a logical conclusion that my ten-year-old self forked over a dollar bill for this unique issue.

Officially issue fifteen of the DC SPECIAL SERIES, the 1978 Batman Spectacular boasted of 68 pages of content and no ads. In reality, you get to 68 pages by using both interior covers. This issue is a true gem of my favorite era of Batman’s history: the Bronze Age. More or less, the Bronze Age of comics ran from 1970 to 1985. For Batman, the Bronze Age started with the pairing of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in the early 70s to the publication of Frank Miller’s seminal THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. In the 1970s, Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor and the Batcave and took up residence in the Wayne Foundation building. He was a detective, a creature of the night, and, most importantly, still a man. He could be hurt, both emotionally and physically, and he was, including this book.

The Batman Spectacular features three tales. The first, “Hang the Batman,” was written by David V. Reed and pencilled by Mike Nasser. The story centers on the death, by suicide, of a famous author, Archer Beaumont. But Beaumont believed it was possible to communicate from beyond the grave, a belief given new relevance when various signs start popping up around Gotham City. A cryptic note admonishes the Dark Knight Detective to solve Beaumont’s murder or Batman himself will meet death. He investigates, gets into fisticuffs, and, no spoiler here, solves the case.

Reed’s writing is crisp, fast-paced, and typical of the type of story from the 1970s. He provides all the clues the reader needs to solve the crime along with Batman. But it is the visual way Nasser (now Netzer) drew the panels that really set this story apart. His Batman is lithe yet muscular. He rarely treats a single page with traditional panels and borders. He visualizes the entire page as a canvas, seeking out new ways to tell the story. And he gives you interesting angles. I read this tale twice in a row I was so enthralled by his art.

The second story is by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Michael Golden. It features Batman’s (likely) best nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Batman’s unwitting and unwanted marriage to Talia, Ra’s’s daughter. O’Neil co-created Ra’s with Neal Adams and this is a perfectly serviceable story, but it seems rather small. Ra’s is best when he’s trying to take over the world or do something for which he sees as right. Here, he’s just trying to steal some diamonds—in a manner fitting a James Bond villain. Golden’s art is as realistic as you could get from art in the 1970s, and helps elevate this story.

O’Neil redeemed himself with the third tale of this issue. Advertised as “Something New..Something Bold!”, “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” is a Batman story told in prose by O’Neil and illustrated by the great Marshall Rogers. All three artists are fantastic at creating interesting visual storytelling. Rogers drew a series with writer Steve Engelhart many consider to be among the best Batman stories every told. The scenes he draws for O’Neil’s story are, like Nasser’s very visually interesting and almost minimal despite the exquisite detail.

But that’s okay, because the real stars here are O’Neil’s words. Free from a traditional comic book story, O’Neil’s prose is lavish in detail and is spun like a magician. And the details provided give a glimpse of a Batman rarely seen on comic pages. In one scene, Batman confronts a brute who thinks he can best the Caped Crusader. “The Batman shrugged. ‘Take your best shot.’” I loved the noncommittal nature of Batman here, the hero who knows he’ll win, the hero who has confronted countless thugs who think they’ll be the one to take down Batman.

As a writer, I especially appreciated how O’Neil didn’t always conform to proper grammar to paint his pictures with words. “The footfalls stopped. Snick of lighter. Odor of tobacco.” That’s it. Sure, you could write a paragraph, but why when a short few words will do the trick. The way he describes Gotham City is also splendid.

It is a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless. Eight million human beings live on streets that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch all the way to Tokyo, crammed into thousands of neighborhood from the fire-gutted tenements of Chancreville, where rats nestle in babies’ bedclothes and grandmothers forage in garbage cans,to the penthouses of Manor row, where the cost of a single meal served by liveried servants would support an immigrant family for a year. It is countless chambers and crannies and corners in bars, boats, houses, hotels, elevators, offices, theaters, shacks, tunnels, depots, junkyards, cemeteries, buses, cars, trains, terms, bridges, docks, sewers, parks, jails, mortuaries—the shelters of living and dead, millionaires and bums, fiends and saints.
Napoleon’s armies could search for a lifetime and leave places unseen.
An exceptionally energetic investigator could visit the likely ones in a month.
The Batman had less than sixty minutes.

Come on! You can see that as clear as any artist. O’Neil’s love of old pulp fiction, especially The Shadow, bleeds off the page. And how’s this description of Batman emerging to take on a couple of crooks in front of a movie screen: “The Batman, stark and implacable against the expanse of white, a grim figure congealing from the shadows.” So, so good.

I highly encourage you to seek out this issue. The entire thing has not been republished elsewhere. The Ra’s tale you can find in Tales of the Demon. The prose story is reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers and in Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

What Could Have Been and What Still Can Be

Photograph by James Willamor, CC-BY

by J.J. Hensley

Your first priority is to make it home at the end of your shift

That’s what I was told when I entered my first law enforcement academy for the Chesterfield County Police Department in Virginia. I was reminded of it again when I transitioned from local to federal and journeyed to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. It was beaten into me again, to some extent, at the U.S Secret Service’s academy in Maryland, although the expectation changed if you were working a protective assignment and had to put yourself between a threat and a protectee. In that case, you made sure someone else got to go home, and if you got killed…well, nice job!

The people you work with are your brothers and sisters because nobody else understands

When you start working the streets, you see things most people do not. You see many people at their worst and rarely see people at their best. Two of my years as a patrol officer were on midnight shift, and I assure you I did not encounter the pillars of the community. In fact, many of the people I dealt with were drunk, high, or both and had come to the attention of the police for committing an assault, vandalism, or something much worse. A majority of the people you deal with on a daily basis don’t like you, or aren’t happy to see you because something tragic has happened to them. A vast majority of interactions can be negative, and over time, a strange thing happens. You end up only having cop friends, because who else works those hours and doesn’t get freaked out by your tales from the road? The next thing you know, people…just…people aren’t people anymore. They’re civilians.

Now you are in a subculture, and it is engrained in you to stand by your fellow officers. In extreme cases, officers will stand by each other no matter what. A classic, sad example is what we are witnessing in Buffalo where two officers assaulted a seventy-five-year-old man, and his fellow officers not only stood by them, but then the assaulting officers were cheered by other officers as they left the courthouse after an appearance. This is the blue line that has created a border in this nation, a border between two nations with different rules.

A training problem vs a cultural issue

I don’t know how many hours of defensive tactics and firearms training I went through between my academies and in-service training, but the number has to be incredible—unbelievable really. And it was beneficial, good training. The training wasn’t the issue. In fact, whenever an issue comes to light in an organization or process, the knee-jerk reaction is to always blame training, but it’s almost never the training. More times than not, it’s a communication, organizational, or cultural problem. My training was fantastic. It prepared me for my years in law enforcement, during which I had to draw my weapon, but never had to shoot anyone other than a rabid raccoon (sorry, dude), used my baton once (to break out a window), and never pepper sprayed a person. There were plenty of times I had to use some level of physical force, but many times I did not. In fact, I would guess 99% of my encounters with civilians required no physical use of force whatsoever.

Mopes, Dirtbags, and worse

So, after going through a local police academy, a couple of federal training programs, and gaining a good amount of practical experience, I’d consider myself fairly well-versed in law enforcement use of force issues. I’ve never been through the academy former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin attended, but I can make certain assumptions with confidence. First, you never use more force than absolutely necessary to execute an arrest. Second, the neck contains the carotid artery, windpipe, and a portion of the spinal column. Applying pressure there for a long duration can cause serious injury or death. Third, once a subject is restrained, on the ground, and compliant, there is no need to continue any activity that may restrict breathing. In short, if you mess around with the neck you aren’t just asking for a tragedy to occur, you’re inviting it . It seems the Minneapolis PD did allow for the use of a chokehold (call it a carotid restraint if you would like, but that’s not the point). At the time of this writing, the city banned the tactic in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. I was surprised the department had been using the tactic, as not only had I never been trained to use a chokehold, but had been explicitly trained  NOT to use one due to the risks involved.

Needless to say, I am horrified and furious at what we have all witnessed. Thanks to video evidence being available, I believe Derek Chauvin and his fellow officers will be held accountable for their actions. Not only are the actions caught on video terrifying, but there are also serious questions as to if there was even probable cause for the arrest,  and some reports that the responding officers escalated the situation upon arriving at the store. I’m sure these issues will be brought to light in the weeks to come. What I believe we will find as this case progresses is that George Floyd, like so many others, was not viewed as a person by the responding officers. He may not even have been a civilian. He was just another mope, or scumbag, or degenerate that was something…less. That is where this “us vs them” mentality has taken us. This is where the countless hours of survival training while being submerged in a subculture of isolation has taken us. When combined with poor HR practices that include hiring the wrong people, and the inability to fire poor performers, we find ourselves sitting on a powder keg.

What Could Have Been

This has led us to the demonstrations, disorder, and what could have…should have been said by our leaders in the first days of the protests. Contrary to what some are saying, the demonstrations we have seen are not just about George Floyd. They are about the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and many others—some caught on video and many which have gone unnoticed. There have been too many racist cops for way too long. If you doubt this, research the number of lawsuits filed by minority officers and agents claiming they have been passed over for promotion due to race or disciplined unfairly. In fact, the Chief of Police in Minneapolis was a party to one of these suits several years ago. The problem exists, and there is no turning away from it anymore.

The mass demonstrations that broke out around the nation were an opportunity for our leaders to step up and acknowledge a long-standing problem that has plagued our country. Yes, there have been opportunists who have taken advantage of the moment to loot and cause destruction, but if one is going to use the argument that most cops are good then you must believe in the distinct probability that most demonstrators are good. Now…imagine the President stood at a podium and expressed empathy and a genuine desire to change the system. Here is an example of what could have been said and done:

The death of George Floyd was inexcusable. Any American with a conscience has to be outraged at what we witnessed, and I applaud those in the law enforcement community who have immediately denounced the actions that took place in Minneapolis. Mr. Floyd’s death is a call to action, albeit one that is too late for many. The policing profession is filled with good people doing a tough job, but we can do better. There have been too many instances of racism and abuses of power to ignore. The demonstrations we are seeing are not about one unjustified killing or a handful of bad officers. They are about many voices that have been ignored for far too long. 
Therefore, I am instructing the Attorney General to work with the Governors of each state to explore setting up National Hiring and Training Standards for law enforcement officers. There are major hurdles facing such an endeavor and many questions that will have to be answered. Issues regarding jurisdictions, resources, and budgets will undoubtedly bring about naysayers who will claim such a massive reform effort cannot be done. That we cannot afford this. My response to them is that we cannot afford to keep things the way they are. We need to ensure officers across the nation are meeting acceptable standards and do not have anything in their backgrounds that should exclude them from having the public’s trust. 
Additionally, I’m asking that the AG work with the states to ensure a standard of disciplinary measures is established. If an officer is fired from one department for an egregious act, he or she should not be able to get hired by another department. There have been too many examples of officers jumping from one department to another after being dismissed. I’m also instructing the AG to work with the governors to establish minimum pay standards for law enforcement officers. Police departments have to be able to hire professionals, and in many instances, this has not been the case.  
I want to assure all of you who have taken to the streets to demonstrate that we hear you. Change is coming. The police forces you see today are going to look much different in the near future. The “us vs. them” mentality in policing has not worked and will be driven out. We are all “us” now. As a nation, we are facing many challenges. We must face these challenges together as allies, not enemies. I vow to you,  I will work with you to start that process today.

However, as we know, that isn’t what happened. (Author’s Note: Well after this piece was written, Democratic lawmakers drafted The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 that includes some of these elements, although it is unclear if it will become a law.)  What occurred was the escalation of tensions as rhetoric spewed from Twitter and other outlets. The words “thugs” and “dominate” became favorites, and the pseudo-group ANTIFA became the new immigrant caravan at the gates. The military has been mobilized in some areas, and I fear the next move will be to threaten the “free” election in November, either through intimidation or by discrediting the results. If this sounds far-fetched,  watch the video of Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s church again. It will be no surprise if law enforcement is used as a political tool of intimidation throughout the next few months. The results will be more distrust among the public and damage that will take decades to repair, if it can be fixed at all.

What still can be

Proposals for reform are ongoing. Perhaps the tide is turning, finally, and there will be a major cultural shift in law enforcement. What we need are stubborn voices of reason who present actual evidence-based solutions. Currently, there are calls to “Abolish ICE” and “Defund the Police.” Often, phrases like this come from those who do not have a complete understanding of what that might entail. For instance, ICE has come under fire for their detention and deportation activities, which fall under its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). However, ICE itself is a large organization which encompasses Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI consists of about 8,500 people who deal with a myriad of crimes - human trafficking, child pornography, arms dealing, etc. - that have little or nothing to do with ERO.

Likewise, defunding police departments without thought or explanation as to what vital functions need to remain is a nonstarter. In the days since the defunding movement became popular, people have tried to clarify what this means (it’s actually a reallocation of funding and demilitarization – a.k.a. police reform), but the message is getting lost because it sounds too much like abolition. We need police. We even need police to have a reasonable amount of tactical (some would say ‘military-style’ equipment). What we desperately need is for officers to use it appropriately and have the right policies in place to govern its use. This demands a cultural shift in the profession, which will take time, effort, and persistence. “Abolish” and “Defund” make for nice sound bites, but those phrases are messaging failures, regardless of intent.

It is now essential for the reasonable voices within law enforcement (and some do exist) to speak out and demand reform. That process might be underway. The city council in Minneapolis has voted to disband the police department and create a new Public Safety Model. It’s unclear what this will entail, but opponents to this move have immediately taken to their keyboards and microphones to claim there will be no police force at all. I don’t believe that will be the case. In all likelihood, it will include a law enforcement component, but also civilian units focusing on social services and drug treatment. Will it work? I don’t know. But since the current model isn’t working, let’s find out. To repeat the same actions and expect different results is insanity. For too long, cultural norms and police unions protecting bad officers have stymied any real change. Rather than demand accountability from fellow officers, the law enforcement community has often circled the wagons to stand by those who are not worthy of the badge.

Training our officers to survive is crucial and should not go by the wayside. Let me be clear about this—the use of force, including deadly force, will always be present in the world of law enforcement. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows out there, and there are situations one simply cannot deescalate. There are hard, terrible people out there, and sometimes they have to be dealt with in a harsh, but legal, manner. However, the culture within law enforcement needs to be such that one not only knows how to survive, but also remembers how people are supposed to live. I have spent nearly my entire adult life in and around law enforcement, and officers and agents are vocal in their complaints about their agencies and departments, yet no other profession, to include the rank and file, fights change as much as law enforcement. That time has to come to an end.

J.J. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He’s the award-winning author of the crime novels RESOLVE, MEASURE TWICE, CHALK'S OUTLINE, BOLT ACTION REMEDY, RECORD SCRATCH, FORGIVENESS DIES as well as several short stories and resides near Savannah, Georgia.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Writer, Compartmentalizer

It's odd how events in life can force a writer to compartmentalize.  I found myself about two-thirds of the way through a novel when the global pandemic broke out.  I'd put the novel aside for some months to work on a number of non-fiction pieces and was planning on returning to it in late April or early May.  By that time, the lockdown was in full effect, and though I have a job that allowed me to continue working from home, being in the house every day, with nowhere to go, no commuting to do, allowed me extra time for writing.  I can't say at any point that I experienced difficulty concentrating or focusing on work during the pandemic because writing, as always, provides the mental escape from everything going on "outside".  It's not a form of escapism per se but provides the means to "go someplace else for a while" and do something you have complete control over.  

So, more or less on schedule, I've resumed work on the novel.  I've been back at it for about six weeks now and I have been making steady progress. New York City is beginning its gradual reopening as I write this, but it may be some time before I return to work at my office.  In the meantime, I'll continue teleworking, and the time I save each day by not having to commute back and forth is time I'll continue to put towards pushing through the book. Maybe, just maybe, I can have this thing done by August or September?

But what does any of what I'm talking about have to do with compartmentalization? It's this: with 2020 being so eventful, first with the pandemic and now with the George Floyd killing and its aftermath, you look at what you're writing currently and you may wonder, "Will anyone want to read this when it's done? It has nothing to do with anything going on right now."  There is sometimes a tension between sticking to an original conception for a book and changing that conception, adapting it, to allow in the immediate events of the moment because of the feelings and thoughts you have about those events.  But can your original conception, whatever it is, survive this transformation without mutating into something ruinous for the book? It might. The literary graft (Or is it an infusion?) might work.  

In my case, I don't think it would work.  I've decided no, don't graft or infuse, and so I stick to writing my thing as I originally conceived it.  I'm hoping, as I do every time I write a book or story, that it will hold readers' attention through the plot, the characters,  the language, the subject matter, and so on. The current book will be about this, and the outside world churns on.  I am obliged, for now, to use every ounce of discipline I have to avoid the topical. You're dwelling in two worlds at once, the real world and the one you've devised for your book.  Now, this state of double dwelling is perhaps no different than what you normally do while writing a book and living your day to day life.  You pay attention to the world while writing your novel, but your novel's not a journal, a collection of daily reflections.  You live a life of division, except that now, with everything going on, the divide between the internal fictional world you have and exterior world you live in feels more severe than ever.  Not that I don't like my own book anymore; I do.  But I'm forced to write it from within a certain mental compartment, a compartment I have to guard against outside intrusion. It is possible, of course, as the subconscious does its work, that current factors will work their way into the book obliquely, symbolically, whatever you want to call it, but I am determined to work this book through as I planned it. It takes place in a slightly alternate world anyway, so the burden and challenge of writing it remains the same as before 2020 started.  Make the world shown convincing, intriguing, and you can draw in the reader.

Meanwhile, the virus sticks around, and the intensity of our contemporary history brings something new almost every day.  Like many, I protest, argue, discuss, observe, reflect.  The different ways writers process what has been going on is interesting to think about, and the books they produce out of all this will be fascinating to read and compare.