Thursday, March 15, 2007

Arnold Drake 1924-2007

Most of this blog's readers have probably never heard of Arnold Drake. I would even be surprised if most of this blog's readers have even heard of his creations. But Arnold Drake was one of the most innovative and influential writers in comic books. Among other things, he created both the Doom Patrol and Deadman. Drake died March 12 at the age of 83 after a bout with pneumonia.

Arnold Drake was born March 1, 1924. As a child he exhibited an interest in comic strips early. When he was 12 he contracted scarlet fever and was confined to his bed. His mother bought him bridge pads to use as drawing paper, and it was while he was sick in bed that he created his first comic strips. He soon realised that he was more interested in writing comic strips than in drawing them. Drake majored in Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He later attended New York University.

While at New York University, Drake took on a variety of writing jobs, doing public relations work for AT&T, Blue Cross, IBM, and so on. He sold some text and a few stories for the smaller comic book publishers. It was while Drake was in college that he, future novelist Leslie Waller, and artist Matt Baker more or less invented the graphic novel. They had hit upon the idea of a "picture novel," essentially a novel in comic book form. The plan was that their picture novels would be more sophisticated than the average comic book of the day, written for adults rather than children. They interested publisher Archer St. John in publishing a series of picture novels in mass market paperback form. The first published picture novel (in 1950), It Rhymes with Lust, was a film noir potboiler. A second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha, by writer Manning Lee Stokes and artist Charles Raab, was subsequently published. Unfortunately, neither sold well and the idea of the picture novel died on the vine.

Regardless, Drake would still find a career in the comic book industry. Batman creator Bob Kane was his brother Milton's neighbour. Kane, Drake, and Drake's brother began working together on a project, and Kane introduced Drake to DC Comics' editorial staff. His first work for DC was for House of Mystery. Drake was soon writing for such DC titles and strips as House of Mystery, Batman, Space Ranger, Tommy Tomorrow, and Mark Merlin. Drake created the comic strip Stanley and His Monster for DC's Fox and Crow magazine. He would eventually work on both the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comic books, as well as Little Lulu.

It was in 1963 that Arnold Drake would make his biggest mark in comic book history. Editor Murray Boltinoff asked him to create a feature for the ailing My Greatest Adventure magazine. The idea Drake and fellow writer Bob Haney developed was that of a superhero team who were more or less outcasts, led by a man in a wheelchair. If the idea sounds familiar, it is because it is more or less the same concept behind X-Men. The catch is that the Doom Patrol first appeared three months before the first issue of Uncanny X-Men! Th Doom Patrol consisted of Cliff Steele, whose brain was placed in the body of a robot following an accident, turning him into Robotman; test pilot Larry Trainor, whose body became radioactive after exposure to radiation, but who gained the ability to project himself in the form of negative energy; and Elasti-Girl, actress Rita Farr, who after being exposed to unusual volcanic gases gained the ability to shrink or grow at will. The team was led by Dr. Niles Caulder, called the Chief, who was bound to a wheelchair following an accident.

The Doom Patrol ran for 41 issues. During the series' run, Drake displayed his originality in the often bizarre villains the team faced. Among the villains the team faced was: Mr. 103, a villain who could turn himself into any of the 103 elements known in 1963; Ultimax, a sentient computer; and the alien invader Garguax. Among the Doom Patrol's deadliest opponents were the Brotherhood of Evil, led by the Brain (who was precisely that--a disembodied brain maintained through artificial life support) and featuring the intelligent and deadly ape Monsieur Mallah and the shapeshifting Madame Rouge. While the Brotherhood of Evil were deadly, they were nothing compared to the Doom Patrol's archnemesis, General Immortus, the immortal leader of a crime syndicate.

Sadly, as the Sixties wound down sales for The Doom Patrol declined. It was with the magazine's final issue that Arnold Drake took the revolutionary step of killing off the team. In final battle against Madame Rogue, the Doom Patrol sacrificed themselves to save a Maine fishing village. It was the first time that a comic magazine ended its run with the deaths of its main characters. Regardless, the Doom Patrol maintains a cult following to this day, allowing for several revivals (most notably one written by Grant Morrison). Much of their mythos (including the Brotherhood of Evil) would later be used in issues of The Teen Titans.

Drake's second most famous creation would also come about because a comic magazine was in need of a boost. Editor Jack Miller approached Drake with the idea of creating a new superhero for the failing Strange Adventures. The idea Drake developed with artist Carmine Infantino was that of Deadman. Deadman was aerialist Boston Brand, Who was murdered while performing on the trapeze. Brand's ghost was given the ability to possess any living creature by the goddess Rama Kushna so he could find his killer. In the meantime, however, Brand often found himself using his powers to aid others. In some respects, it was a precursor to the show Quantum Leap.

Perhaps unfortunately, Arnold Drake did not always get along well with his editors. His various disagreements with editors at DC would result in his dismissal, alongside many of the other longtime writers at the publisher (including Batman co-creator Bob Finger). Ironically, Drake would later go to work for Marvel on, of all things, The Uncanny X-Men, a superhero team with an uncanny resemblance to the Doom Patrol. He would eventually take up residence at Gold Key Comics, where he worked on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. In addition to writing comic books, Arnold Drake also worked in B-movies. He wrote the screenplays for the low budget horror movie The Flesh Eaters and the low budget crime drama Who Killed Teddy Bear.

Although he was not one of the best known names in the comic book industry, Arnold Drake was undoubtedly an innovator who dared to venture where few others would. His Doom Patrol predated the more popular X-Men and he was the first writer to actually kill of his characters at the end of their run. Deadman was a revolutionary character for his era and, as pointed out earlier, was a forerunner of the same idea as that in the TV show Quantum Leap. It is perhaps a mark of Drake's influence that there are feature films based on both the Doom Patrol and Deadman are in development. And while his idea for "picture novels" never got off the ground, it foreshadowed the rise of graphic novels in the Seventies and Eighties. Growing up Doom Patrol was among my favourite titles--I read as many of the reprints as I could get my hands on. Much of this was because of Drake's sheer creativity as a writer. In the Sixties he was doing things in the pages of Doom Patrol that would make even Stan Lee and the guys at Marvel look tame. I must admit to being very sad upon hearing of his death.

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