Michael Fleisher

13 March, 2018 at 10:36 pm (comics)

Farewell, Old Friend: Michael Fleisher

My grandfather amazed me one day, after asking about my enjoyment of comic books, by saying that he knew the artist of Spider-Man. Turns out he was friends with the parents of Rick Leonardi, who — by my reckoning — was the most dynamic and interesting Spidey artist, particularly in the way he would draw splash pages capturing his speed and agility by having multiple images without panel breaks. My stepfather, however, was able to do my grandfather one better. In his profession as weird wood artist, he has met a whole host of comparable borderline personalities that have glommed on to him, and one of them was Michael Fleisher, writer of Jonah Hex.

Fleisher was even a sufficient fan of my stepfather’s that he drove out to New Hampshire to visit him, and brought his monthly box of DC comp titles for us kids to enjoy. We read and re-read them all, despite being titles we didn’t remotely care about, and despite that they were all in the midst of storylines of which we wouldn’t buy the next issues. He was a real comics writer, and this complete catalogue of every DC book from September 1987 was proof. Long before comics at large temporarily transitioned into their “auteur theory” period of considering writer uber alles, the fact that a comics writer had stayed in my house had already elevated their collective status in my eyes.

My stepfather would keep vaguely in touch with him. I heard about the announcement of the transition from Jonah Hex to Hex before I read about it in Direct Currents or the like. I heard about his weird, failed sex novel, and his move to England to work on 2000AD for a time (when I visited England myself, I asked about his “prog”s, and was told in no uncertain terms that they didn’t pass the smell test). And a couple of years ago, I was told that he was living in hospice and not doing very well. Last weekend, the second season of Jessica Jones dropped on Netflix, and tonight I was surprised to see his name listed in the “Special Thanks” credit of episode 5, along with some Marvel’s heaviest hitters. Despite knowing of my stepfather’s love of his run on Conan the Barbarian, I always thought of Fleisher as a DC guy, especially since I’d learned that he had been the same Michael L. Fleisher that wrote the Superman encyclopedia that I’d checked out a half-dozen times from my local public library — I remember poring over the strange and wondrous details of his Golden Age existence and trying to rectify how lame Superman comics always seemed, and how fantastic and fantastical those entries were (Ah, Lori Lemaris…). So I’d never read his run on Spider-Woman nor knew of his history with Dr. Karl Malus, now being portrayed in every psychedelic rock music shirt able to be licensed.

Knowing he had been ill, I was reminiscing about how the late, lamented website ComicsAlliance had instituted creator tributes as part of their mission to recognize those who worked in comics, before they died, for the characters and creativity that had affected their readership and which was often still part of the weft and continuity of current comics. The very fact that Dr. Malus was being portrayed by Callum Keith Rennie seemed exactly like the sort of thing they would have done an article on, informing casual viewers of the depth of the debt and foundations of their casual entertainment. They’d never really paid a great deal of attention to Fleisher, even during the Brolin Hex adaptation, but this seemed like the kind of thing that would have sparked their fancy, especially if they knew of his illness. A casual Google between episodes surprised me, as the cached Wikipedia summary indicated that Fleisher had died in early February, but none of my current comics news sites had mentioned it. The image to the left clearly shows his death listed, but Wikipedia itself didn’t, with three edits in the past month adding and removing death details due to a lack of Wiki-acceptable sources.

Well, finding reputable sources is kind of my day job, so I put my shoulder to the internet millstone and tried to figure out whether I’d missed an article on one of the comics news sites I eschew, whether a different Michael Fleisher had passed (A Mr. Fleischer, perhaps), or whether the industry had just missed an obscure man passing into further obscurity. The only definitive records I could find was a Portland, OR obituary notice and a memorial selection of photographs and condolences at an Oregon funeral home. Both those pages had birthdates that matched his Wiki page, the middle initial lined up with his DC encyclopedia work, and the photos, while older, matched my memory of his face from previous Googlings over the years. I then sent my findings off to Tom Spurgeon to see if anyone in the industry knew more definitively than I did and left the confirmatory Wikipedia edit to someone who understands the proper formatting.

Spurgeon calls Fleisher a “name-that-fans-knew writer”, and that’s eminently fair. Despite my own relationship to his creative output, his work-for-hire credits are solidly work-for-hire, without rising to level of superlative. My stepfather often tells the story about his work on Conan that if Conan comes to a cliff or a castle wall and needs a rope, that Fleisher would have have the script say Conan has a rope on his belt, without bothering to go back and make sure that John Buscema knew to draw him carrying a rope for the previous seven pages. That kind of workaday attitude rarely inspires devotion. However, Fleisher did pull off one of the most interesting tricks in comics history: he killed off a character in his prime, and the character was Jonah Hex.

Jonah Hex issue 92Hex first appeared in Weird Western Tales 12, written by John Albano, with Fleisher not contributing to writing duties for another ten issues in February 1974. Hex would get his own solo title, helmed by Fleisher, in 1977, which would run a full 92 issues until 1985, and then bizarrely spin-off into a Max Max-derivative punk hellscape featuring flying motorcycles and a crazy future Batman. That’s an astonishingly long run for a Western comic, lasting well beyond the everyday popularity of most other examples of the genre. But in 1978, between issues 18 and 19, DC would publish the Jonah Hex Spectacular, a super-sized special edition issue that told the story of Hex, grown old and tired, dying in a shoot-out with a faster, younger gunslinger. Then, bizarrely, his body was stuffed and used as a exhibit in a carnival, and then forgotten. At an early height of the title’s sales, Fleisher and his editor, Larry Hama, chose to find the shape and conclusion of the story of their character. Neil Gaiman would legendarily talk with regard to Sandman that a story has no meaning if it doesn’t have an ending, and the structure of that cult literary series is about how the Lord of Stories comes to an end. Gaiman’s decision is talked about as a radical notion, but Fleisher had observed and subverted that same idea more than a decade beforehand, killing off his cake and then continuing to eat it for an additional nineteen years. Even the character’s strange sidebar into time-travel ends with Hex seeing his own stuffed, preserved corpse, and the realization that, somehow, he returns to the normal postbellum timeline to grow old and slow and dead.

It still feels like a revolutionary act. In part because it didn’t detract from the suspense of future stories. The reader never really suspected Hex was going to die from month to month, anyway; the excitement was found in reading by what machinations he would manage to escape the cliffhanger twists. And so Fleisher giving the character a tragic ending, an absurd post-mortem existence was poetic and elegant, and a genuinely authorly thing to do: a fantastic achievement for an unsung work-for-hire writer.

Requiescat in pace, Michael Fleisher. I’m sorry it took so long for the comics community to notice that you were missing, and I’m sorry you didn’t get to see your name in the Jessica Jones credits. Here’s hoping that if you need a rope to scale the pearly gates, that the artist gives you some, even if you didn’t have any with you in the previous panel.

Related Links:
The Comics Journal #56 (1979) interview with Fleisher, “The Man Who Stuffed Jonah Hex
One Fangirl’s Opinion about the Jonah Hex Spectacular
DC in the ’80s covering the initial transition from Jonah to Hex
Matching Dragoons’ write-up on the finale of Hex

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