A BIRTHDAY SALUTE: The celebrated Mr. K crosses universes with a DC workhorse…
UPDATED 12/17/21: Dick Dillin was born 93 years ago! Perfect time to re-present this piece by 13th Dimension columnist Paul Kupperberg. And make sure you check out Paul’s JSA: Ragnarok novel. Dig it! — Dan
Paul Kupperberg is back — and he’s got the DC Multiverse with him, in salute to late artist Dick Dillin, who was born 93 years ago.
Great piece ahead — though Paul didn’t include my personal fave JLA/JSA crossover: Justice League of America #171-172, featuring the murder of the original Mr. Terrific.
But, hey, life’s rich pageant, y’know? — Dan
By PAUL KUPPERBERG
In 1968, Dick Dillin (December 17, 1928 – March 1, 1980), the penciller of DC Comics’ Blackhawk, hovered on the periphery of my comic fan awareness. I was a superhero fan first and foremost, and titles in other genres had to work very hard to get my attention. Blackhawk was somewhere in between superhero and not; created in 1941 for Quality Comics by Chuck Cuidera, Bob Powell and Will Eisner, it was originally a World War II military aviation feature that evolved postwar into an adventure strip.
When DC acquired the Quality catalogue in 1956, Dillin, who had been penciling the book, came along for the ride. And what a deal! With a solid style and sense of storytelling, Dillin easily accommodated stories crammed with seven regular characters and their Grumman XF5F Skyrocket airplanes without dropping a layout.
Dillin clocked an amazing 177 issues of Blackhawk between 1951 and 1968, when the title’s new editor, Dick Giordano, changed up the creative team. You’d think after his 17-year marathon, anyone would have wanted to take a little break. But not Dick Dillin. Blackhawk #241 was cover-dated June/July 1968; the first issue of his next regular gig, Justice League of America #64 was August 1968. He didn’t even take a month off before diving into what was to become his next long haul; 119 issues over the next dozen years.
Oh, and to make it even crazier, Dillin’s very first issue was Part 1 of the annual JLA/Justice Society of America crossover event, doubling the number of heroes featured in the story! And, as many memorable Dillin-drawn issues as there were, it’s his work on these crossovers that I’m spotlighting here in honor of his birthday.
JLA is a lifelong favorite title of mine, discovered when it was still being drawn by Mike Sekowsky. The annual Earth-One/Earth-Two crossovers with the Golden Age JSA characters (initiated by editor Julie Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox beginning in 1963’s JLA #21–22) became probably the most eagerly awaited event of the DC Comics year.
I’d originally intended to write about the Earth-One/Earth-Two JLA/JSA stories in a column about my 13 favorite DC Golden Age/Silver Age crossover stories (a not-too-subtle promotional nod toward my recently published Justice Society of America novel, JSA: Ragnarok, published by Crazy 8 Press — now available in paperback or eBook on Amazon — but stuff got in my way.
So, in order to have something ready to celebrate Dick Dillin’s birthday, I’m starting in the middle with his run; I’ll work my way back to those earlier stories next time (and probably remind you again about JSA: Ragnarok).
But for now, I give you Dick Dillin, one of comics’ hardest working artists — in chronological order:
1. Justice League of America #64-65 (August-September 1968). As noted above, Dillin’s debut issue was Part 1 of the 1968 JLA/JSA crossover event, “The Stormy Return of the Red Tornado” and “T.O. Morrow Kills the Justice League — Today!” Talk about being thrown into the deep end: This Gardner Fox script featured 30 or so distinctively costumed characters over two different worlds and introduced a new, Silver Age superhero iteration of a comedic Golden Age “mystery (wo)man,” Red Tornado.
Dillin was inked here by Sid Greene, likely the first inker other than Blackhawk compatriot Chuck Cuidera to touch his interior pencils in over 15 years. And, just to add an ironic (>gasp! choke!<) little twist, Dillin’s first cover for his first issue of JLA (inked by Jack Abel) doesn’t feature a single member of the JLA itself, except for a couple of pasted-on stock headshots of Batman and Superman around the logo.
2. Justice League of America #73-74 (August–September 1969). Another year, another multi-hero crossover, and much like the previous year’s introduction of the new Red Tornado, one with consequences. Longtime JLA (and once upon a time Golden Age JSA) writer Gardner Fox was gone, replaced by the rising star of the new generation of writers, Denny O’Neil. On Earth-Two, a cosmic menace threatens to destroy everything before Red Tornado can escape to Earth-One and bring the JLA back to help.
Did the good guys ultimately win? Of course. It was 1969. The Comics Code Authority insisted. But with victory came the price of the life of Larry Lance, the husband of Dinah Lance/Black Canary and a character first introduced in 1948. Nowadays, characters drop like flies (usually to be resurrected sooner or later), but back then the death of any character was a big deal.
3. Justice League of America #75 (November 1969). Not officially a JLA/JSA story, but one featuring an important moment in the development of the Multiverse as Black Canary, a lifelong Earth-Two character, became the first hero to move permanently from one world to another, taking up permanent residence on Earth-One to escape the painful memories of her husband’s death.
In “In Each Man There is a Demon,” Denny and Dillin provided a powerful story that pit the members of the JLA against evil duplicates of themselves and introduced Black Canary and readers to the power of her “sonic scream,” gained as a result of crossing worlds.
4. Justice League of America #78 (February 1970). “The Coming of the Doomsters” doesn’t exactly qualify as an Earth-One/Earth-Two story; I always felt it fell into a vague pre-continuity-crazed area of undeclared Golden Agers. Here, Vigilante (the motorcycle riding Western troubadour Greg Saunders — back-up feature from 1941–54 — not the psychotic killer Adrian Chase I’d later write) is brought out of retirement to help the JLA defeat an environmental menace in a story that also introduced the team’s new satellite headquarters.
A couple of years later, the JLA would again meet Vigilante, but as a member of the Earth-Two based Seven Soldiers of Victory. Like I said, it could get fuzzy.
5. Justice League of America #82-83 (August-September 1970). Red Tornado is once again the bridge between the two Earths as the android is captured by the mysterious Creator2, who uses the android’s vibrational energies to target the heroes of both worlds. When superpowers fail, the JSA turns to magic for salvation.
As committed a reader as I was to JLA, these crossover stories were starting to lose some of their sizzle. Early on, it was exciting just seeing the Golden Agers resurrected and back in action. But once they had all been rolled out, the stories were getting repetitious: the JLA and JSA versus a big bad menacing both their worlds. And no disrespect to one of the industry’s most celebrated writers, Denny O’Neil, but even he conceded that cosmic superheroics were not his forte. Thank goodness, at least, for the consistent and steady presence of Dick Dillin!
6. Justice League of America #91-92 (August-September 1971). It felt as though they’d stopped even bothering coming up with motivations for the crossovers. Here, a trio of joyriding aliens and their symbiotic pets get into an accident in the dimensional barrier between the two Earths and end up fighting the JSA.
If “Earth — the Monster Maker” and “Solomon Grundy — the One and Only” showed us anything, it was that the once vaunted “Crisis Crossovers” of yesteryear were caught in the creative doldrums. Dillin had shown from his very first time out on JLA that he could handle all the heroes the writer wanted to throw at him, doing the best with what he was given to draw. I don’t know about Dick, but his fans were still waiting to see him strut his stuff on some stories worthy of his talents.
7. Justice League of America #98 (May 1972). But first, another hazy Golden Age/Silver Age character, this time Sargon the Sorcerer, the turbaned magician who made his debut in All-American Comics #26 in 1941 and, abracadabra, disappeared after his strip in Sensation Comics was canceled in 1948.
Mike Friedrich had revived Sargon as a villain in The Flash #186 in 1969 (and later in #207) and now gave him a chance at redemption by offering the JLA a supernatural solution to the overwhelming threat of Starbreaker.
8. Justice League of America #100–102 (August–October 1972). First there was DC’s Justice Society of America (All-Star Comics #3, Winter 1940)… and only months later, there came DC’s Seven Soldiers of Victory (Leading Comics #1, Summer 1941). The difference? The JSA was made up of the publisher’s A-team characters, while the Soldiers were solid second stringers: Green Arrow and Speedy, the Shining Knight, the Crimson Avenger, Vigilante, and the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy.
The 100th issue of Justice League and 10th annual JLA/JSA crossover marked writer Len Wein’s debut on the title. And his two-parter, “The Unknown Soldier of Victory” and “The Hand That Shook the World,” shook up readers, especially those of us familiar with the Soldiers (my best friend had all 14 of their Golden Age appearances in Leading Comics).
As I said, the thrill of the original “Crisis Crossovers” was the re-introduction of all those long ago or lost heroes into modern continuity. Len, himself only a few years out of fandom, remembered that thrill and breathed new life into the concept with this eagerly anticipated epic that teased the death of one of the Soldiers… OK, it turned out to be Shining Knight’s horse Winged Victory, but still.
9. Justice League of America #107–108 (September/October–November/December 1973). How did Wein and Dillin hope to out-do the previous year’s Seven Soldiers crossover? By reaching beyond Earth-One and Earth-Two, beyond even the realm of DC’s Golden Age and into the Quality Comics superheroes from the 1940s, now natives of Earth-X, an alternative universe where the Nazis won World War II.
Quality Comics published a wide range of comics until 1956 when it sold the copyrights and trademarks to many of their properties to DC, including the Dick Dillin Blackhawk. DC didn’t do anything with most of the characters besides Blackhawk, except for Plastic Man during the ’60s.
Len couldn’t resist a roster of heroes like Uncle Sam, the Human Bonb, Phantom Lady, Dollman, the Ray and Black Condor, giving a modern spin on their World War II origins as the Freedom Fighters. And, once again, there was Dick Dillin delivering the goods and reintroducing another subset of classic heroes to the modern audience, this time inked by Dick Giordano’s clean, crisp line.
10. Justice League of America #123-124 (October-November 1975). Things got seriously meta and self-referential in 1975’s “Where on Earth am I?” and “Avenging Ghosts of the Justice League,” by the writing team of Cary Bates and Elliot Maggin. Jumping off from earlier Flash stories in which it was established there was an Earth-Prime (i.e., the one we lived on, where these comic books were being published), we meet the young scribes in the throes of plotting the next issue of JLA, i.e., the one we were reading.
The lads stumble upon the Flash’s time-traveling Cosmic Treadmill (the one left behind in editor Julie Schwartz’s closet in 1968), Cary is accidentally sent to Earth-Two, where he becomes a villain when he’s brainwashed by the Wizard and the Injustice Society, and Elliot follows him across interdimensional space to alert the Justice League and stop his collaborator from doing anything rash.
It was weird, but Dick Dillin not only kept the story on track with his clean layouts and storytelling, he managed to provide very convincing likenesses of its two Earth-Prime protagonists.
11. Justice League of America #135–137 (October-December 1976). Once Len Wein opened the door to adding worlds to the ever-expanding Multiverse, I just know E. Nelson Bridwell had to be champing at the bit to add Earth-S, the world of his much beloved original Captain Marvel to the mix. He got his chance, with scripter Martin Pasko, in 1976’s epic three-part crossover, “Crisis in Eternity,” “Crisis on Earth-S,” and “Crisis in Tomorrow.” (I don’t have to explain the whole DC Comics/Fawcett Comics lawsuit/subsequent acquisition of Fawcett characters, etc. thing, or the fact that he was still allowed to be called Captain Marvel back then, do I?)
Along with big bad King Kull and a myriad of Marvels (Captain, Junior and Mary), and the wizard Shazam, the story makes good use of the old Fawcett catalog, including Bulletman and Bulletgirl, Spy Smasher, Ibis the Invincible, Mr. Scarlet and Pinky. And don’t forget there was also a full complement of JLAers and JSAers and their assorted villains running around as well. I can’t speak for Dick Dillin, but from the look of these issues, I’d say he took even Nelson’s obsession with detail in stride.
12. Justice League of America #147-148 (October-November 1977). For 1977, the JLA/JSA went where no annual crossover had gone before: into the 30th century world of the Legion of Super-Heroes. It was probably about time the groups met; the Legion had been introduced in 1958, almost two years before (or a thousand years after) the JLA’s debut. And what’s a millennium among friends anyway?
Once again, Dick Dillin deserved to be awarded a distinguished penciller medal. There were artists who refused LSH assignments because of the number and complexity of the characters. But the Legion plus the JLA plus the JSA plus whatever Mordru and his crew consisted of? I guess that was what Dick probably considered just another day at the drawing board.
13. Justice League of America #159-160 (October–November 1978). The writers had changed (several times), but just shy of 100 issues into his run on JLA, Dick Dillin was still going strong. He had become the Justice League artist to a generation of readers, just the way Mike Sekowsky had to me years earlier.
For “Crisis From Yesterday” and “Crisis From Tomorrow,” writer Gerry Conway used the Time Lord to dip into a collection of DC’s historically based heroes, including Jonah Hex, Viking Prince, Miss Liberty, Black Pirate and Enemy Ace to take on the Earth-One and Earth-Two super-teams.
There didn’t seem to be anything Dillin couldn’t draw. His figures were muscular but never overinflated, his women beautiful and statuesque but firmly grounded in reality and anatomy. He could create convincing alien characters and landscapes, and his hardware was solid and functional. His Superman had power, his Batman mystery, his Green Arrow a swagger.
For all that, there was nothing flashy about Dick Dillin’s art, but anyone as good as he was didn’t need to show off.
Happy birthday, Dick Dillin!
NEXT: It’s back in time to the birth of the Multiverse. Did you know we share the same birthday?
Paul Kupperberg has been writing comic books from Archie to Zatanna for 45 years at DC, Archie, Charlton, Marvel, Bongo and others. He is also the author of Paul Kupperberg’s Illustrated Guide to Writing Comics (Charlton Neo Press); I Never Write for the Money… But I Always Turn in the Manuscript for a Check (Comics Career); the comic book industry-based murder mystery The Same Old Story, the short-story collection In My Shorts: Hitler’s Bellhop and Other Stories, and JSA: Ragnarok (all from Crazy 8 Press), all of which are currently — or shortly will be — available at Amazon.
— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite MIKE SEKOWSKY Comics. Click here.
— PAUL KUPPERBERG: My 13 Favorite 1960s Comic Book Books. Click here.