For much of the 20th century, and maybe still today, it was perfectly possible to be mediocre and have a career in the arts. Mediocre actors, mediocre writers, mediocre artists, they’ve all been able to make a living.
If there’s a magazine or a newspaper someone has to fill it with articles. A comic book has to come out every month (or quarter or bimonthly, whatever), TV stations have to fill their broadcasting time, mystery or SF series have to deliver a new installment to fans and so on. Ideally they fill it with quality stuff, but that’s hard; even Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone couldn’t do it every time. So they try to do good work and occasionally fail or they just settle for “meh” and don’t worry about it.
Which is how I feel about DC’s Tales of the Unexpected, having just finished a TPB of its first twenty issues. Under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, DC’s Strange Adventures and Mysteries in Space read like the creators are trying to tell fun, entertaining stories, and frequently succeed. Unexpected editor Jack Schiff was a much less effective editor and everyone seems content to just churn out stuff to fill space, as they did on Schiff’s My Greatest Adventure. Jack Kirby contributes some stories, but they’re not as lively as the monster stories he worked on at Marvel during the same time.
The magazine in the 1950s was an odd mix. We had SF stories, supernatural horror stories and fake supernatural horror stories. In The Face Behind the Mask, the woman’s mask hides that she’s eternally youthful … except this is actually a scam to con an elderly man into paying a fortune for the youth treatment. Other stories involved crooks haunted by supernatural threats, except they turned out to be fakes designed to trick them into confessions.A whole string of stories involved crooks acquiring supernatural/SF powers only to get their comeuppance: either they break the terms of the magic, or they screw up the deal in some other way. In one of the better stories, for example, a crook kills a scientist and steals his duplicator machine, they creates a duplicate of himself to go to the chair for the murder. He learns too late that whatever happened to the duplicate happens to the original … Most of them weren’t that clever. Lots of other stories culminate in a twist or reveal that falls flat. The reveal of The House Where Dreams Come True is a rare exception — it looks sinister but it turns out to be a rather sweet tale.Despite the bland, unimaginative scripts, Unexpected kept running all the way through the Silver Age, though getting more heavily SF as it went along (for a while DC’s uninspired Space Ranger was the resident hero). After that, like House of Mystery and House of Secrets, it converted to a supernatural horror format —
— and kept going on into the early 1980s.
My point (I do have one) is that you don’t have to produce great work or even good work to stay afloat as a writer or artist; as one old saying goes, editors want someone who meets deadlines, is easy to work with and does good work, but they’ll settle for two out of three. But as comics writer Steven Grant once put it, readers don’t care that you’re easy to work with and meet deadlines. They care about what they’re reading, not how it was created. Of course if it hits the right buttons or fills some empty times, something that’s formulaic and “meh” may meet their needs perfectly — but is that what we want to aspire to? Isn’t it better to give readers our best, not just whatever mediocrity we can get away with? Admittedly circumstances may force us to compromise — the budget’s low, we need a quick sale, we’re approaching deadline — but if we have the chance to shoot at the moon and miss, as they say, at least we’re out among the stars.
#SFWApro. Covers by Leonard Starr, Jack Kirby Ruben Moreira, John Prentice and Neal Adams, all rights to images remain with current holder.