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Monday, September 5, 2016

DC in the 80s interviews Diabolu Frank: the "Martian Manhunter guy"

I first discovered Diabolu Frank's The Idol-Head of Diabolu blog about five years ago. Or maybe it was seven? It's kind of hard to tell because The Idol-Head seems to have been around for as long as I can remember. It's one of those blogs you take for granted, but would miss dearly if it were to ever suddenly stop existing. If you take a look at Diabolu's blog (which I highly encourage you do), you're going to notice an interactive, visually-stimulating, informative and meticulously updated blog — quite befitting for a founding member of the Justice League of America. I didn't make the connection until about a year ago that some of my *other* favorite DC character-focused blogs (Justice League Detroit, Diana Prince as the NEW Wonder Woman, The Power of the Atom, and The Flame of Py'tar) were also being curated by Diabolu Frank. All of these sites look amazing and are kept up-to-date. That takes dedication.

Not only does DC in the 80s celebrate DC comics, but we celebrate DC fandom.  The extremely articulate and interesting Diabolu Frank was generous enough to chat with us about his earliest memories of DC comics, collecting comics in the 1980s, surviving the 90s comic book "boom and bust" and how he became the "Martian Manhunter guy".

DC in the 80s: What was your first comic book memory?

Diabolu Frank: I'm literally a lifelong fan of the medium, so I have no conscious memory of being introduced to comic books. I had coloring books starring Captain America and Superman before I could read. Certainly the '60s & '70s DC Filmation and Marvel Super Heroes cartoons were introduced to me early, and I was around for the Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Hulk live action shows in local syndication, plus I saw the first Superman movie theatrically. My uncle, mother and father were all into comics to varying degrees, so I had youthful psyche-scarring familiarity with [Marvel comics'] Bronze Age Dr. Strange, Adam Warlock and Howard the Duck comics. Mego Pocket Heroes were my jam; I may have had every one of those at one time. With my own spare change, I favored picking up team-up books like The Brave & The Bold and DC Comics Presents with a few nickle strips of Sixlets from 7-11 to get the most bang for my fractions of a buck.

DC80s: What cemented your love of comic books?

Diabolu: I grew up in a poor neighborhood without a library outside of school, so comic books and action figures were the cheapest and most age-appropriate on-demand entertainment option available. I had friends, but I was never big on group play, so comics were great fun when I was solo and helped me connect with the most agreeable partners for one-on-one friendships. When my mother married and we got traveled around the country with my stepfather, I could maintain my relationships with comic book characters wherever there was a newsstand in a way I couldn't with the neighborhood kids that always ended up in the rear view mirror. It wasn't so much a matter of cementing interest in a hobby as a psychological dependency I've carried with me longer and more intensely than I could manage with any of my human connections. Nobody I was close to before early adolescence is still in my life today, but the comic books are.

The Brave and the Bold #172 (1981) and DC Comics Presents #45 (1982)

DC80s: I'm going to do some quick math here — if you were buying issues of The Brave & The Bold and DC Comics Presents with spare change, then you were predominantly reading comics from the late 70s/early 80s. So I'm going to guess that you were probably in your early-to-late teens during the 80s, so the 80s would've been your 'formative years' of comic book collecting/reading. Actually, as I look over your list of blogs, Justice League Detroit is one that I immediately recognize as a direct product of the 1980s. Of the comics published in the 80s, what were you mainly reading?

Diabolu: I actually just restarted a bit of personal archaeology in the form of Comic Reader Résumé, a short-lived blog series and shorter-lived run of YouTube videos that I'm repackaging and continuing as an occasional podcast. I was able to pinpoint the precise month where I shifted from occasional to regular purchaser of comic books as January of 1982. The first two episodes of the podcast version cover books I remember picking up from before that point, and subsequent episodes will chart my monthly progress for at least the next several years of routine collecting. At many decades' remove, it looks like my initial approach was catch-as-catch-can between whatever I could find at convenience stores, three-packs at grocery, thrift, toy stores, and flea markets with an emphasis on the most commonly recognizable heroes, team-up/group books, and horror/fantasy titles. The good thing about starting with limited options is that there was no place to go but up. At the flea markets especially, I saw comics go from a pile at the back corner of random booths selling other stuff to maybe one devoted comic booth per market. By the end of the decade, I'd lived within walking distance of two devoted neighborhood comic book shops in strip malls, and that was before the real explosion during the speculation bubble of the early '90s when everybody and their mother was selling them.

DC80s: As a comic book fan who was 'right there' and could see the difference between the 1970s and 1980s books being published, what were the big differences you noticed?

Diabolu: I definitely remember starting out with Superman and Batman, but abandoning them early on. DC was in a really bad place in the early '80s, having been unsuccessfully chasing Marvel's market since the start of the Bronze Age with way over the hill veterans and guys who couldn't make things work elsewhere. Superman especially was a perfect gateway character, with the Christopher Reeve movies in theaters and all the TV shows still in syndication. So I'd pick up a Superman comic, and it would be drawn by a dull hack featuring the Man of Steel against some under-powered cornball wearing a tacky half-century old costume or saving his umpteenth alien race of dried asparagus people, and I'd put it right back on the shelf. I wasn't alone in that, from what I've gathered anecdotally and from the published circulation statements. At their best, probably due to the influence of Dick Giordano, they read like Charlton with a bigger budget, but at worse they still read like DC Comics from the Eisenhower Administration. Everybody's one big exception was The New Teen Titans, DC's most Marvel book by hot creators who left Marvel over their dislike of its Editor-In-Chief, but most of the rest of the line were your grandfather's comics. DC also had poor distribution throughout Houston, TX, probably because their sell-through was lousy, so even if you liked a certain book there was no guarantee you could consistently get your hands on it. In my neighborhood, it was all about X-Men, Secret Wars, Spider-Man, and the toy tie-ins like G.I. Joe and Transformers. It was a huge deal to see a cartoon advertising G.I. Joe comics on Saturday morning network television, and I've never understood why there wasn't more outreach like that.

Blue Devil #3 (1984) and Ambush Bug #3 (1985)

The main DC books I remember picking up before their big evolution was Blue Devil and Ambush Bug. I think DC had an easier time just letting creators have fun with a book that didn't have to involve all that self serious, continuity heavy modern mythology muck. There was one booth at one flea market that had lots of Blue Devil, probably through a subscription, so between its being a good time and having a reliable source I ended up collecting that until the well ran dry. Hardly anybody wanted anything to do with humorous comics, probably because they were almost never actually funny, and those with a talent for comedy in the industry were already at Mad Magazine or one of its many knock-offs. Keith Giffen was always an exception in that respect, and Ambush Bug was the perfect book to send up all the convolutions and pretensions of the comics at that time.

In 1986, I was still into X-Men and G.I. Joe, but I figure that was the year DC finally figured out their post-Silver Age identity. They started actively courting Marvel's top talent instead of handing out blank checks to whichever disgruntled expats walked through their door. They skimmed the cream off the top of the independent press, which included a lot of creators they themselves had displaced in the '70s, and offered new visions of their properties. The 'British Invasion' was truly beginning with Watchmen and proto-Vertigo. It didn't happen overnight, and Marvel was still selling truckloads of kiddie fare to the fanboys, but by the end of the decade DC was making surgical strikes into both the connoisseur and casual reader markets. The 1989 Batman film and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns opened the doors wide for a surge in readership, and I bought my own copy of the movie adaptation out of a counter dump next to the popcorn machine at the theater. I got back into the DC Universe late in '87 with John Byrne's Superman and Justice League International, but my interest ebbed and flowed until the early '90s. I felt like Marvel was being strip-mined for easy profit and Image Comics were just telling the same sort of nonsense violent juvenile power fantasies as Marvel with flashier art and paper stock. I shopped around quite a bit, but DC was where I felt most at home, where I stayed the longest as a fan, and it's the universe I have the greatest emotional and intellectual investment in. It was a time when you could see Vertigo and Ultraverse ads on Sunday afternoon UHF channels, and every suburb had a half dozen shops conveniently located. I'd say 1986-1993 was the last shining moment where actual physical comic books mattered in the greater conversation of popular culture.

DC80s: Did the 'Direct Market' distribution system affect your buying habits?

Diabolu: Having access to comic shops definitely expanded my horizons, giving me the opportunity to raid back issues and try more independent titles. There was also greater representation in book stores, with growing shelves of trade paperbacks, and as a reader I often favored the latter since the shops were so preoccupied with stocking the latest hot single issues. Unfortunately, all the money from the speculator boom turned everybody into little Napoleons trying to sell entire universes with all the cheap gimmick bells and whistles (like embossing and foil stamping now reserved for boxes of cereal and toothpaste). Solid publishers like First and Eclipse went under quick while carpetbaggers like the collection of houses best known as Malibu cashed in for millions. DC had created a sustainable market for upscale books that should have broadened the audience, but they got swallowed up in the deluge of overprinted unreadable garbage that shifted the industry out of entertainment into junk bonds. It was a pyramid scheme that benefited the corporate raiders but destroyed us utterly.

DC80s: Maybe I misread something in one your bios, but at any point did you sell or become a comic book retailer? Or own your own comic book shop? Or maybe work at one? I may be wrong here... please correct.

Diabolu: And that was the point where I came into comic book retail, under tragic circumstances, just as all hell was breaking loose. As "mayfly" under-capitalized shops run by neophyte business managers were already prone to close without warning, I had subscription boxes at multiple stores to keep my options open, and I was typically spending enough at each to float a decent discount. Following a death at one of my favorites, I was asked to help out on Wednesdays to make sure the subscriptions were pulled in a timely fashion. Once it became obvious that I was the only one actually working and was knowledgeable and professional enough to interact with the public, I was asked to take over full time. Then about a year later, I was sold as chattel with the shop under the specific condition that I had to stay with the new owners — who turned out to be argumentative and unrealistic. After a cycle of quittings and firings I was finally brought over to a better shop (also following a death, but not a suspicious one, I swear.) That arrangement worked out much better, lasting six years before my partner and I were both sick of the monotonous hand-to-mouth existence of sustaining a small neighborhood shop carrying twelve years of debt load from three previous owners. We looked into finding a buyer, but everyone we talked to wanted at least one of us to stay on after the sale, so we just helped relocate our pull box customers to other shops and liquidated. It's a point of pride that I ran the only comic shop I ever knew to close correctly with plenty of notice and money still in the bank to keep running if we'd chosen to.

The Idol-Head of Diabolu's blog header was illustrated by Michael Netzer! How cool is that?

DC80s: Going to delve into your blogging. Your 'Diabolu Frank' persona entered my radar several years ago while I was googling something about the Martian Manhunter. Lo and behold, I stumbled onto your Idol-Head of Diabolu site. Now, 'The Idol-Head of Diabolu' is a reference to a story device used in DC's House of Mystery series (1965) in which J'Onn J'Onnz had to battle a new monster every month. What is your affinity to J'Onn J'Onnz? What made you decide "this is the character for me — the character I want to dedicate a site to"?

Diabolu: I've had a passing familiarity with J'Onn J'Onzz since the mid-80s through house ads and his having arguably the best Super Power Collection action figure sculpt, soon followed by guest appearances and reading his time on various Justice Leagues. I liked the character, but I was very put off by the first issue of his eponymous, experimental 1988 mini-series. Part of it was being priced out, since I was poor and they kept releasing hardly read Martian Manhunter books that elicited sticker shock, plus it was the '90s and he didn't have long hair or excessively stylized weapons or a cybernetic eye. Then in 1996 I read Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare #2, where his b-plot came to a head, and I cheered in my room when I hit the Jeff Johnson splash page where a soul-deep wounded Manhunter from Mars was about to show some murderous buffoons just how not okay he was with them.

JLA: Midsummer's Nightmare #2 (1996). One PO'd martian.  

It hit me all at once how often I'd enjoyed J'Onn J'Onzz in my comics reading without acknowledging what a deep and diverse character he was. The concluding issue of the mini-series kept up my newly heated interest in the character, and I started investigating him from there. Usually, if you wanted to find out more about a comic book character, you could pick up a Who's Who or a Handbook and get the gist, but Martian Manhunter's entry was full of references to stories and characters that were not readily available or followed up on anywhere else. As it happened, one of my customers had started donating large quantities of Bronze Age DC comics and '70s Playboys to my comic shop to clear out space at his house, so I gave him store credit and cherry-picked all the Martian Manhunter stuff I could find. I was able to get most of his 1970s and early '80s appearances from that one source, including Silver Age reprints in various 80-Page Giants, his World's Finest Comics one-offs, and a run of what we now call "Justice League Detroit". I was also starting to have internet access through WebTV, and noted an initial total absence of Martian Manhunter fan sites or resources. I began talking to retired Navy Commander Adam Benson on the DC Comics Message Boards because he was the only person I could find with a firm knowledge of Martian Manhunter's solo stories in Detective Comics, and that led me to pick up low-grade reader copies of the House of Mystery strip on eBay. By that point, there were a few fan sites, but nothing remotely comprehensive with regard to the Alien Atlas' overall career. I built my own shoddy one through WebTV, and about five years after I abandoned that, fan blogs like The Aquaman Shrine inspired me to reconstitute the project in that vein, where it still exists with occasional updates and new podcasts. Basically, by taking up following the Sleuth from Outer Space, I became embroiled in the mystery of his existence as a character outside of the oft-recited "Heart and Soul of the JLA." Now I'm looking at twenty years of being able to call myself a fan of the character, with nearly as long as a vocal online advocate, and nearly nine years with the Idol-Head blog.

Now as far as why? It kinda fell into my lap. I realized that I dug the character, wanted to know more, and reported my findings. I was the only guy doing it for a long time, it was an involved process, and as my work seemingly became a key point of reference on the wiki sites that were springing up, I found myself in an echo chamber where my own stuff kept coming back to me. I see my gaps and lapses and interests (or lack thereof) reflected throughout the web of resources related to the character. Scans I captured and commissions I paid for are all over the place. There are probably fans out there with a purer love of the character than I have, which is why I named the blog after a long forgotten adversarial artifact from deep in the character's history instead of something like "The Martian Manhunter Monument," but as the loudest and longest lived voice advocating for the character, I'm "the guy" by default. Which isn't to say I don't love J'Onn J'Onzz, but I also see the faults and failings. Very few of his stories are truly exceptional, most writers can't seem to get past his being a mash-up of Superman, Mr. Spock and the Cookie Monster, and I think most of his fans are so casual that's all they expect from him.

DC80s: How have you reacted to the evolution of the character of J'Onn J'Onnz over the years?

Diabolu: I for one am actually very happy with the New 52 redesign bringing him into the 21st century after he spent the second half of the 20th looking like a refugee from the first half. But J'Onn J'Onzz has so much potential — such a rich and byzantine history, such a menagerie of friends and foes waiting to be revisited. In the Silver Age he was this young dilettante adventurer fighting crime as a pastime while stranded on a world he was taken to against his will. Then his human form perished and he was off chasing a surprisingly well traveled Pandora's Box with an other-dimensional cartoon character who spoke in Pidgin English and controlled temperature. Next he predicted the coming of "grim n' gritty" by becoming a coldblooded spy battling a super-mafia in Europe. Next he was retconned into a global civil war where he was forced to address genocide and became a metaphor for Holocaust survivors in the diaspora. There is such an enormous sense of tragedy that surrounds the character, but also whimsy and fantasy and horror. J'Onn J'Onzz is extremely powerful and potentially dangerous on a cosmic scale, but he can be felled by a match and he's guided by a more resolute humanism than most super-heroes. As long as you maintain his core character as a true hero who understands the human race but doesn't always approve of its proclivities, you can tell virtually any story with this him. Martian Manhunter is the perfect utility super-hero within a shared universe encompassing any genre, but he's also great on his own as the mysterious extraterrestrial detective who can go where no human can to solve mysteries beyond the scope of the rational world. Plus, he's an effective metaphor of any unappreciated "other" in society that despite the best intentions is forced to work clandestinely within a hostile, oppressive society. He is both nakedly derivative and absolutely unique, which could describe both the Manhunter and the medium that birthed him.

DC80s: I also couldn't help but notice your blog dedicated to Despero — who is a somewhat obscure DC villain to begin with. How did that happen?

Diabolu: Despero happened to be in the only issue of Who's Who: The Definite Directory of the DC Universe I ever bought new, and I thought he was ridiculous. His head looked like a fuchsia Gila monster, and he dressed like a priest in a suburban cult that sacrificed pet rocks to a boiling vat of fondue.
Despero's 1985 Who's Who entry

I don't think I saw him again until the last limp mega-arc of the Justice League International era, "Breakdowns," and then again as a heavily armed anti-hero in "Judgment Day." It wasn't until I started collecting Martian Manhunter stories from the late '90s backward that I discovered Despero was worthy of appreciation. His story arc during Adam Hughes' run on Justice League America is justifiably seen as a high water mark, and for my money his first arc with the fin mohawk against the "Detroit" League deserves a similar evaluation.

Despero battles Justice League Detroit (1986)

Like the Avengers, the JLA doesn't have a great track record of generating villains, but Despero is equivalent to Marvel's Kang or Ultron. Despero was in their first issue, he turned up comparatively often, no one hates the team as much as he does, and he's very scary when you set him loose on lower powered incarnations of the team. Martian Manhunter and Despero are both garishly colored aliens from polar opposites of the emotional spectrum with deep ties to the League, so it's natural that they should have been pitted against one another so often. Personally, I'd have a lot more confidence in the Justice League film if they were both in it, instead of wasting the Fourth World the first time out, and by extension veer far outside the historical early days of the League. Ironically, Despero as revised by Gerry Conway and Giffen & [J.M.DeMatteis would fit the [ZackSnyder Murderverse fairly well, but I'd just assume not have to go there.

DC80s: What have been the most rewarding results of this? Your most cherished memories and achievements?

Diabolu: Mark Waid once tweeted out that my Martian Manhunter Encyclopedia was the favorite thing he found on the internet that one day, and when I interviewed J.M. DeMatteis he noted that he already knew about and had visited the site. I've had good experiences, meeting people through blogging and pod-casting that I like and am happy to know. Ultimately, I've enjoyed pod-casting more because it creates capsules of good times with people I love, plus there's still a vocal audience for tawky shows, where blogging is now just a depressing slog bereft of any positive reinforcement. I don't think either endeavor has had much impact though, and I'm still waiting to "level up" to doing something with legitimate meaning.

---end of interview---

I'm going to respectively disagree with the interviewee's last few sentences here, and state that Diabolu Frank's blog posts are some of the most entertaining and informative I've read on the internet. Frank is a natural-born writer; his work is filled with humorous observations and intelligent insights (and his grammar and spelling are fantastic). Among the other blogs listed in the opening paragraph of this interview, Diabolu Frank also writes for Crisis Building, The Justice League Blogosphere, the DC Bloodlines blog, and his own whatever-he-feels-like blog, ...nurgh.

You can catch The Idol-Head of Diabolu's podasts on the Rolled Spine network. And, if you are so inclined, you can also follow Diabolu Frank on twitter.

As you can imagine, a site as J'Onn J'Onnz intensive as The Idol-Head must provide a list of the definitive Martian Manhunter stories of each era - and they do. (Which I'm going to share with you, because the lists are THAT good):

I'm also going to recommend listening to Diabolu Frank's interview with John Ostrander & Mark Verheiden, which was recorded at Comicpalooza 2016.


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