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by Eddy Zeno

As a young reader, I always liked Superman better than Clark Kent. Didn't we all? My favorite stories might begin with an unfolding headline event teletyped into the Daily Planet newsroom. Clark might be working at his desk or chewing the fat with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy. He would have to find an excuse to change to Superman so he could fly to wherever the threat was and deal with it. If he never appeared out of costume for the tale's remainder, it was fine with me. Yet despite a child's opinion that Clark was not needed except perhaps as a brief story springboard, he did not go away. That's because the editors and writers, starting with Superman's co-creator Jerry Siegel, were smart enough to know that without Clark Kent, Superman wouldn't last.

Denny O'Neil, interviewed in January 2006 for the book The Krypton Companion (by BACK ISSUE's Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows), in essence said that even those long-ago, goofy tales in which Lois or Lana schemed to prove that Clark was Superman/Superboy were necessary. They helped ground a near-invincible space alien with godlike powers in the everyday world so readers could relate to him. In current continuity Superman remains grounded by having Ma and Pa Kent alive and by Clark/Superman being married to Lois.

The careers of the writers participating in the Clark Kent Roundtable span these wide gulfs in the reporter's history and events in between. Their comments, received by email between July and October 2006, serve as reminders how each of them has added dimension to the fictional character. For contrast and clarity they are divided into pre- and post-Crisis teams-or the "Clark Kent Red" and the "Clark Kent Blue" teams, in a nod to the classic Imaginary Story. However, all Roundtable participants maintain a sharp interest in Clark as he appears today, and many of them still participate in his adventures in some form. -Eddy Zeno

(Acknowledgment: Thanks to Michael Eury for helping with the following questions.)


CARY BATES Superman writer, 1960s-1980s

ELLIOT S! MAGGIN Superman writer, 1970s-1980s

DENNIS O'NEIL Superman writer and Superman Family editor, 1970s

MARTIN PASKO Superman writer, 1970s-1980s; Superman Returns adaptation, 2006

LEN WEIN Superman writer, 1970s

EDDY ZENO: From your perspective, which was the "real" and which was the "manufactured" personality, Clark or Superman? Is he primarily a simple North American type of guy or a stranger from another planet?

MARTIN PASKO: Wow. This question reminds me of all the subplots and story premises I pitched that explored Superman's identity issues. They kept being rejected by the editors I had to satisfy because they didn't "get" them, and they didn't conform to their purely escapist sensibility and their preference for gimmickry. I'm used to people not understanding why I find this a more complex and nuanced question than your phrasing of it implies. That's because I'm probably unique among Superman writers in that I have firsthand experience with the sort of identity issues Kal-El would have-the kind that abandonment, early adoption, and displacement create.

For me, the "truthful" way to write it is that the Kryptonian began his conscious life thinking of himself as Clark Kent, believing himself human until his powers began to manifest themselves. But from that point on, everything changed.

That's why I think that what you're asking about differs depending on which version of the continuity you're talking about. In the continuities in which there is no Superboy, the timeline of Clark's self-discovery is different. The creative choice writers must make is greatly affected by where the information about Superman's past comes from, at what point in his life he gets it, and how many years he's been thinking of himself as a costumed vigilante (a longer period if he's been Superboy).

What I had to work with was essentially a Julie Schwartz-modified version of the Weisinger continuity of the '60s, in which Clark learned of his Kal-El identity when he was in grade school, rather than as a young adult. So it always seemed to me, because of the way I learned of my own identity, and had to revise my self-image as new information became available to me, that once "Clark Kent" became aware of "Kal-El", Kal-El became the "real" person, and both Clark and Superman became constructs. But, because he was, in effect, cut off from his "real" self because he had no memory of having lived as Kal-El, that real self felt less real to him-paradoxically-than either of the "manufactured" identities.

I base this conclusion on the way my own history parallels the character's: I was born in French Canada, of which I have no firsthand memory (so, for me, Canada = Krypton). In my birthplace, I was given the name Gaston Claude Rochefort (= Kal-El). I was adopted by an American couple who were a good 10-15 years older than most of my contemporaries' parents (= the Kents) and brought to the US (= Smallville) at a very early age.

My adoptive parents were completely honest with me about the fact of my adoption, and from as early as I can remember, I knew I was different from other kids in that respect. So, Gaston-Claude feels unreal to me because, to my conscious mind and memory, Martin Pasko has always been my identity. Yet I know it's a construct because I wasn't born with it.

That condition leaves one with a sense of being two people at once, and no one at all-and I was luckier than Supes; I didn't have yet a third identity to worry about!

But that sense of being a man without a real identity-as well as a man without a homeworld, if you will-leads to a kind of alienation from others that is fairly unique. I would think that Kal-El's awareness that he is considered human but isn't really of humans is in the forefront of his consciousness most of the time. It's this tragic dimension of the character that I always thought had great story potential, but nobody has ever really explored it, to my knowledge.

CARY BATES: To me it was never an "either-or" question, because he could never simply be just regular-guy-Clark-Kent any more than he could "just" be Kal-El-the-Kryptonian. From the moment his rocketship reached Earth and the Kents started raising him, the way I saw it, both aspects of the character were forever entwined.

LEN WEIN: The Clark Kent persona was definitely the real personality. He was raised as Clark from infancy and only became Superman (or -boy, if you're so inclined) years later. I've long said that what makes Clark Kent Superman isn't his ability to change the course of mighty rivers or bend steel in his bare hands, it's the fact that he was raised by the two most decent people in the world, people who helped form his moral center. All the rest of it emanates from there.

DENNIS O'NEIL: To me, the guy in the cape was always the real one. And though he might try to fit in by being a wholesome, Midwestern kid, that's not who he was.

ELLIOT S! MAGGIN: It is and has always been very clear to me that the character we are dealing with is Superman, not somebody named Clark who pretends to be Superman, and not Kal-El with some sort of alien consciousness who puts on Superman like a suit of clothes or a toga or something. The hero of the story is the character's best self, given all that character's aspects. A primary element of traditional mythology as well as contemporary mythology has always been the disguise, but the disguise is the fantasy, not the reverse-whether the hero is aware of that or not. The little kid growing up as his step-brother's squire in the duke's home was really King Arthur. The beggar who crashed the party thrown by Penelope's suitors was really Odysseus. The swan that seduced Leda was really Zeus. And the strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men-as well as the mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper-is really Superman.

ZENO: How come Clark could fool Lois?

O'NEIL: She's dim? Maybe she wanted to be fooled? I never answered this for myself, nor did I really try to. Clark's fooling Lois-and everyone else-by changing clothes and putting on glasses was a convention I accepted.

WEIN: I always wondered the same thing until I watched the late, much-lamented Christopher Reeve demonstrate on screen that Clark Kent looks nothing like Superman; he's shorter, his facial structure is different. I'm telling you, they're two entirely different guys.

MAGGIN: I like Noel Neill's answer: "To keep my job." That's actually not a bad answer. People see incomplete stories in the world around them. Nearly half the people in this country voted for a man unqualified to be president twice in a row. Probably the best explanation for the failure of characters to perceive "reality" is that we rarely tell ourselves the whole story either; that metaphors are a convenient way around complications. I don't want to spend my effort explaining-or hearing-that the hero is a master of disguise and theatrics and hypnosis and misdirection or the Kryptonian glass gives off a kind of mirage effect or some damned thing. I just want to get on with the storytelling and if glasses and suit gets me there, that's fine with me.

BATES: Like explaining how the Force works (anyone remember midochlorians?), some questions are better left unanswered. A valiant but not too-successful attempt was made to address the disguise conundrum in a story Julie ran in the late '70s (by Marty Pasko, I believe) [in Superman # 330, Dec. 1978, and referenced above by Elliot as a "mirage effect or some damned thing..." caused by Clark's special glasses].

PASKO: Because the eyeglass disguise was a simple conceit intended to suffice for small kids. Of course it's preposterous in the eyes of an older audience, but that's not the demo for whom the books were intended in 1938. Moreover, it was easier to go along with the conceit before the mid-'70s, when the Superman-Lois relationship was unambiguously chaste. The 15 years immediately prior to the Clark-Lois wedding, in which there was an implied sexual intimacy between them, strained credibility to the breaking point. But I'm not convinced that if the glasses were eliminated, there wouldn't be a howl of protest -most of it from the very same people who deride the disguise as hokey. I was the reluctant scripter, by editorial fiat, of a plot submitted by a fan which attempted to offer a science-fictional rationale for the glasses disguise. The story was quickly ignored because it "felt wrong" (as it did to me even as I was writing it). I think it's better not to even ask "How can Clark fool Lois?" Every time a writer tries to answer that, no one is satisfied; the attempted rationale is eliminated from continuity; and the franchise reverts to the conceit that the Kent disguise is effective.

ZENO: If the Clark Kent identity was an act, why was he hurt when she only loved Superman?

O'NEIL: Because, I think, it made for better stories.

MAGGIN: He wasn't hurt. He was thrown off-track, and just a little. Hal Jordan wanted Carol Ferris to be in love with him and not the guy in the mask. Superman has a more complicated life and he's better at finding his way around the complications. I wrote a story a thousand years ago called "Gorilla Grodd's Grandstand Play" [Action Comics #424, June 1973], which I still like quite a bit. In the last page of the story Lois took back some things she had said earlier, in a manner that ought to have hurt Clark's feelings, and afterward Clark walked through the hall down-in-the-dumps until he was out of earshot. When he was sure he was alone he burst out laughing. A friend told me at the time it was a cruel thing for Clark to do to Lois, but I thought about it and didn't think so. I still don't. It hurt no one, and helped me answer this question, after all.

PASKO: Was he? I remember it more as frustration and ambivalence than hurt: On the one hand, he was gratified that the disguise was working, but frustrated that at the Planet he was forced to keep playing the shlub when he didn't want to. I'd also suggest that he was skeptical that she really loved him, as opposed to having a romantic fantasy. I mean, how can you truly love someone-in a mature, committed way-before you know them very well? And since they weren't close enough for her to be entrusted with the secret of his double identity, it's doubtful he could regard her professed "love" as much more than an adolescent crush.

Even though Clark is an artificial identity, I don't think it's an "act" in the sense of a deliberately fraudulent alias, such as one a con man might assume. Rather, it's a displacement of Kal-El's deepest emotions and vulnerabilities into a manufactured vessel. I put it that way to distinguish the process from dissociation as in multiple personality disorder, because in Kal-El's case it's conscious, vitally necessary, and not at all pathological.

We all know that actors who work internally will draw on sense memory and facets of their own psychological makeup to make their characters as real as possible. In this process, it's not uncommon for actors to so closely identify with their roles that they start imprinting their own personalities on their parts. As a result, the actors so closely identify with their characters that the actors start taking what happens to the characters "personally." Often, actors in long-running TV series will feel that they've come to understand their roles better than the writers, and that's what starts the "My character wouldn't say that" wars. From that phenomenon, I extrapolate that, if he were hurt at all, Kal-El, the actor playing Clark, was hurt by Lois's rejection of Clark the character because that's the way the character Clark would react.

WEIN: Well, since I never believed the Clark identity was an act, I think the question answers itself. Besides, I always thought that back in the Silver Age, Lois was a bit of a starf*cker, if you'll excuse my language. She was smitten with Superman because of what he was, not who he was.

ZENO: Why didn't previous attempts to make Clark more appealing (Superman #210, Oct. 1968, under editor Mort Weisinger, and Superman #233, Jan. 1971, under Julie Schwartz) endure?

BATES: Don't recall those particular issues, but in general ...back in the '60s and '70s the mild-mannered schtick was the prevailing mantra of the day, and I would expect any departure from the status quo to be temporary at best.

MAGGIN: I'm not sure what issues the numbers refer to, but it seems to me that #233 probably included the first "Private Life of Clark Kent" story, if my geography is right. [Actually, the series began in Superman #242, Jan. 1972, with initial story by Denny O'Neil.] I don't think Clark is unappealing. He's just normal, and that's part of the point of having him around.

And I'm not sure that any attempt to make him more appealing didn't endure. In the nature of a shared universe like this, whoever is making decisions about who the character should be and where he should go, and what mood the storyteller is in, all change like life. Readers' responses to a momentary shift in direction are only a factor in whether or not a manifest thought somehow becomes canon. There was this big editorial meeting at some point where the publisher and all the editors at DC decided that from now on, the secret identity of a major character would be homosexual. Really. It was kind of silly. And when it became clear that it was kind of silly, everybody quietly forgot about the notion. These characters have lives and dynamics of their own. The storytellers who are the most successful at creating time-worthy stories are those who best steep themselves in the characters' histories and traditions, and then simply tell stories, letting the characters take their own natures into their own hands.

PASKO: I don't think anyone in charge at DC ever thought analytically enough to reach a conscious decision that Clark needed to be made more "appealing."

Superman #210 merely reflects editorial director Carmine Infantino's attempts to make the books look more modern and dynamic (note that #210 has a striking Neal Adams cover). Carmine also insisted that the older DC artists update their swipe files on fashion and prop design. That's when we first started seeing Clark get out of the perennial blue suit and into double-breasted jackets and colorful shirts, etc. To the extent that the stories seemed to be about a "new" Clark Kent, it was wholly superficial; merely a matter of trying to find story hooks that would account for the design changes. So it wasn't so much that the ideas didn't "endure" as that the following Fall brought the designers' new collections. The experiments of #210 and the issues following it were just another flailing attempt to seem as hip as Marvel-briefly considered and discarded like the "Go-Go Checks" of 1966.

As for the TV news anchor business that began under Julie, that was gradually dropped because, by 1980, it was clear to DC that the character of Clark Kent had taken on a life that was larger than its creators or owners. The company's failure to persuade the Superman movie producers to incorporate the Galaxy Broadcasting franchise into the feature film was DC's first inkling that, because of Superman's long-term presence in mass media, the character had a multi-generational recognition factor that meant that the image of the "true" Clark Kent would always be that of a newspaper reporter. WB's own research showed that DC's efforts at "updating" Superman weren't registering with the public. In 2006, we saw exactly the same pattern repeat itself in WB's decision not to do a film in which Clark was courageous and virile and married to Lois.

O'NEIL: Maybe because it wasn't a great idea? The storytelling advantages of a double-identity character are pretty much lost when both identities are admirable (or equally lousy). In the current interpretation, Clark is pretty darn great-brilliant, prize-winning journalist, etc. And his nerdishness was never consistent; if memory serves, he was often played as an ace reporter.

ZENO: What was the impact of the editor(s) with whom you worked when it came to the character?

BATES: Weisinger was much more rigid in terms of everything from plot and dialogue to panel layouts, but since he was my first editor and I was green it worked out okay in the long run. I certainly learned a lot. Julie was a great teacher, too; he also had a lot of his own rules ...but once he trusted a writer, more often than not he'd give you a much wider latitude of creative freedom.

WEIN: Well, since I only really worked with Julie Schwartz as my editor on Superman, the impact was considerable. Julie taught me a bunch of simple, basic rules when it came to writing a Superman story, and I've never forgotten them.

MAGGIN: I have generally worked with editors who were more concerned with the immediate story I was telling-whether it hung together, whether it made sense, whether it was exciting or engaging-than with where I was taking the characters. That was certainly true of Julie Schwartz. And for that matter, the characters were kind of dragging me along in that area.

PASKO: Not much. Nobody ever questioned or directed me in my treatment of Clark, perhaps because none of my editors felt very sure-footed when it came to the Superman franchise. That may have resulted from the same development that made the '70s Superman such a mess (e.g., the sons of Superman and Batman). Petty politics triumphed over both sound business judgment and creative integrity: neither Infantino nor his immediate successors wanted a single editor to wield as much power at National Periodicals as Mort Weisinger had, so the line was split up when Weisinger resigned in 1970. It would be 15 years before all the Superman-related titles would come under a single editor's stewardship again.

Consequently, I did Supes stuff for three editors-Schwartz, O'Neil, and [Joe] Orlando-and each approached both the character and the script-writing process differently.

In matters of mythology, Julie deferred to writers who knew it backward and forward, like Cary, Elliot, Len, and I did, so when we needed to shoot down an editorial suggestion because it was "off-continuity," Julie went along. Denny was always a joy to work with in comics. He freely admitted that he was never that comfortable with the Superman property, so when called upon to edit it, he just found a writer he trusted and got out of the way.

Orlando had no feel for super-heroes, and no respect for the genre conventions. I had no problems with that; I understood what he found silly and didn't blame him for thinking so. But he'd waste hours of your time asking questions like, "Why does Superman have to crash through the wall instead of go in through the door?" And, since he was an insecure little man, he tended to be dictatorial and apt to get petulant at every imagined slight. So you could never give him the straight answer that was in your head, which was, "Look, Joe, you either get it or you don't."

ZENO: What did you do to make Clark uniquely yours?

MAGGIN: I didn't. He wasn't. He belonged to the ages like Lincoln, f'r heaven's sakes, and will you stop calling him Clark? The character I worked with was Superman. Clark was the character Superman worked with.

PASKO: Nothing, and I made no attempt to. It would have been inappropriate to do so, from a professionalism standpoint. Besides, realistically speaking, making that big an impression would've been impossible anyway. Any major change one writer would've tried to make-even if s/he had gotten away with it-would have been undone immediately by other writers and turned into what some DC fans today call "Mopee stories."

O'NEIL: Not a thing.

BATES: See answer to question 1.

WEIN: Strangely enough, I think the most important thing I did with Clark-aside, of course, from giving him a home life, introducing his neighbors in the apartment building he lived in, etc.-was to return the character to his basics. With rare exception, every Superman story I wrote contained that seminal moment where he would rip his shirt open and proclaim, "This looks like a job for... SUPERMAN!" It gave me chills as a kid and continues to do so to this day.

ZENO: What were Kent's most important contributions to the Superman mythos?

O'NEIL: The Clark identity gives readers someone with whom to identify, and provides story fodder.

PASKO: It's a fair question. Unfortunately. The very fact that anyone would find it necessary to ask that underscores how wrongheaded the most recent interpretation of Clark is. But, fortunately for the prospective longevity of the franchise, the fearless, macho Kent appears only in the comics, which have little influence in defining the property in the public imagination any more. Historically, Kent is the repository of the human failings Superman can't afford to admit to himself. Whatever self-doubt, fear-indeed, any weakness-may have, he mentally relegates to Clark. Kent is Superman's vehicle for inhabiting the human world so that he can be treated as an equal by humans (though, with delicious irony, he's usually seen as inferior), rather than being worshipped or feared as a demi-god. But if you make Clark just as strong a personality as Superman, differing only by not wearing a costume and pretending not to have super-powers, then Kent not only has nothing to contribute, he's virtually unnecessary.

BATES: I've never seen that question answered or delineated more effectively than the first five years of Smallville.

ZENO: Had you been given carte blanche, what would you have changed about the Silver/Bronze Age Clark?

WEIN: A lot less of Lois snooping into his secret identity, I think. Other than that, not much. That's the character I grew up with, the Superman I loved.

BATES: From my perspective any answer to a question like that, some 30-40 years after the fact, would either be self-serving or b.s.

PASKO: The Weisinger stuff was pretty silly, but it was age-appropriate, it worked commercially, and, operating synergistically with the media incarnations, it kept the character alive in the comics about ten years longer than his super-heroic contemporaries. So, since it wasn't broken, I wouldn't have tried to fix it.

As for the post-Weisinger stuff, I'd have to have been the editor to make the changes I'd've liked to see: the writers would've been asked to think about the material a bit more deeply in terms of character logic, and to place more emphasis on policing the fantasy elements for believability, extrapolating more logically from known science. This would have constituted an effort to appeal to an older, slightly more sophisticated audience. Then, once a template for a new approach was established, I'd have insisted that all the writers treat the material consistently, rather than O'Neil having one take, [Bob] Haney another, Bates yet a third, and so on.

MAGGIN: In retrospect-although I didn't feel it was so at the time-I think I did have a kind of carte blanche, at least as far as I wanted to take it. What I tried to do overall with Superman was explain in my own words who this character was. I never wanted to make up a new character that I wanted everyone to call "Superman." I wanted to demonstrate the viability of a character in whom, at the time I began writing his stories, no one was really very interested in anymore. I believe I went some distance in doing that. I think the only regret I had was the kind of regret you have when you lose someone close to you: that you wish you could have spent more time with him.

This roundtable, with comments from the Clark Kent Blue Team (KURT BUSIEK, JOHN BYRNE, JERRY ORDWAY, ROGER STERN, and MARV WOLFMAN), continues in BACK ISSUE #20, the "Secret Identities" issue, on sale Jan. 17th! Explore the histories of four characters with unusual alter egos: Firestorm, Moon Knight, the Question, and the "real-life" super-hero the Human Fly. STEVE ENGLEHART and SAL BUSCEMA talk "Pro2Pro" about their Captain America collaboration, and JERRY ORDWAY is spotlighted in a career-spanning interview. Featuring artwork by and commentary from DOUG MOENCH, DENYS COWAN, AL MILGROM, GERRY CONWAY, FRANK ROBBINS, JIM SHOOTER, BILL SIENKIEWICZ, KEVIN NOWLAN, and many others. Bonus: a four-page Superman and Clark Kent COLOR art gallery, with ultra-rare art by CURT SWAN and others. With a Shazam! cover by Ordway, re-creating the classic "Spider-Man No More" cover from Amazing Spider-Man #50. Edited by MICHAEL EURY. 100 pages, $6.95.

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