Ask Chris #299: Archie Goodwin Is… Mr. Nice
Q: Archie Goodwin is a guy who permeates comics history, but isn't much talked about. Can you talk a bit about his impact/career? -- @EvrLvnBluIdThng
A: When you get right down to it, the fact that we're not talking about Goodwin literally all the time is pretty surprising. He is, without question, one of the most influential people in the history of comics, especially the ones I tend to obsess over in this very column, and one of the things that makes him so notable is that his career wasn't limited to one thing. He had influential work at Marvel, DC, even "independent" publishers like Warren, and newspaper strips, and it wasn't limited to a single role. He was a writer, editor, and artist, and more than that, he's regarded as one of the most genuinely kind people that the industry has ever seen.
But all of those accomplishments pale in comparison to his greatest achievement: Being the inspiration for one of the all-time greatest obscure Batman villains ever.
Okay, fine, there's a lot of other stuff, too.
As a writer, Goodwin is probably best known for two projects that towered over virtually everything else in his career, and the first was Vampirella. He didn't create the character --- her original appearances as a spooooky and scantily clad horror hostess were the product of Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins --- but Goodwin was the one who really developed her bizarre backstory into something that was strange and compelling.
Goodwin's stories, frequently with the lush, beautiful art of José González, took the building blocks of space vampires from the planet Drakulon --- where water has the consistency of blood!! --- and turned it into something that goes well beyond the surface appeal of knee-high boots and a costume that's essentially just one very elaborate high collar.
It's an extremely short series --- it ran as eight-page backups between Detective Comics #437 and #442, climaxing in a full-length Batman team-up in 'Tec #443 --- but it's a virtuoso performance by both creators. The storytelling has the retro pulp feel of world-traveling adventure that's timeless rather than dated. It's pure adventure comics, with the same energy as something like Tintin or Uncle Scrooge, but with the superheroic twists and turns of having the villains be an army of clones, and having, you know, Batman show up.
Also, while I suspect it's pure Simonson and has very little to do with Goodwin himself, that costume.
That is seriously one of the all-time greats in superhero costume design. It's so good and so ridiculously impractical. Those boots! How do you even walk around in those things?! It's great and I love it. And if you've never read Manhunter, you should --- it's shockingly not available on Comixology, but there's a gold-foil cover collection from the '90s with a new story that's not hard to find, and is usually worth every penny.
As for his role as an editor, Goodwin had a couple of pretty influential hits there, too. For readers around my age, he's probably best remembered as the editor behind Starman, which ended up being his final project --- and led to James Robinson finishing Goodwin's final script, a Legends of the Dark Knight story that was only half completed when Goodwin died in 1998. That alone would be a pretty great feather in an already great creator's cap, considering how influential Starman would become for the next 20 years of the DC Universe, but there's one other book that's probably every bit as notable.
I can't get too deep into it for obvious reasons, but in 1977, during Goodwin's short-lived stint as editor-in-chief, Marvel Comics secured the rights to publish comics based on an upcoming independently produced sci-fi movie that, thanks to a space-opera structure that was a throwback to the movie serials of the '30s and '40s, made it pretty well-suited to expand in the medium of comic books. It was called Star Wars, and it would end up being such big hit that the comic book tie-in would eventually be regarded as the book that saved Marvel during a time when the industry was otherwise imploding.
Goodwin, with typical humility, would give all the credit for securing the Star Wars license and the success of the books to Roy Thomas, the former EIC who --- as Marvel's go-to licensed comics guy, thanks to the success of his work on Conan the Barbarian --- scripted the book's first year. Still, Goodwin himself would write a few Star Wars books himself, and eventually took over the newspaper strip from 1979 to 1984, working with artist Al Williamson.
Which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, back to Mr. Nice.
I've written before about Batman Adventures #10 and how it's been one of my all-time favorite comics since for about 23 years, and one of the best things about it is the trio of new villains that Kelley Puckett and Mike Parobeck introduce almost offhandedly over the course of the story. I loved those dudes from the first second they showed up, and while that initial affection came from the fact that they're the same kind of bizarre gimmicky crooks that would show up on Batman '66 --- and that they're built for the goofy comedy that they can provide in contrast to the slightly more serious Riddler story that's driving the plot --- once I was actually old enough to get the joke, I loved them even more.
See, at the age of 10, I only had the vaguest awareness --- if I even had that --- that comic books were produced by actual people. Once I was old enough to get that, though, I learned that the Mastermind, The Perfesser, and Mr. Nice were based on the people who worked behind the pages.
The Mastermind, with the obsessive attention to detail that led him to put handcuffs on at the start of a crime just to prove that he had calculated the possibility that he was going to be apprehended by Batman, was based on Mike Carlin, then the executive editor of DC Comics:
The Perfesser, the laconic know-it-all whose blunt conversations, precise plotting, and tendency to ramble about his accomplishments over the past 20 years was, of course, based on Batman group editor Denny O'Neil:
And finally, there was Mr. Nice, the brutally effective, gleefully unstoppable madman who could never quite finish a robbery because he'd get too distracted by being nice.
Those three would go on to star in a handful of Batman Adventures comics as The Threatening Three, and they made for a pretty fantastic stories. I'm especially fond of the one in Batman Adventures #10, "Smells Like Black Sunday," where Mastermind makes Mr. Nice promise to stop being nice for a single day so that they can finally pull off their biggest heist: Stealing nuclear warheads from Gotham City's very ill-placed army base. Nice, of course, obliges --- he's too nice to break a promise --- but when he arrives at the fort and thrashes his way through all the armed soldiers guarding the missiles, he's stopped by the fact that someone left an adorable puppy in front of the last door, and he just can't bring himself to hurt it.
But while Adventures #10 is one of my all-time favorite comics, the best Threatening Three story is arguably the last one.
Released after Goodwin's death in 1999, the simply titled "The End," by Puckett and Rick Burchett, is all about Mr. Nice having to go away forever, and the way that the other two members of his trio deal with that. In the story, it turns out that Nice is prophesied to save a remote village, but to do so, he has to leave Gotham and stay with them for a full decade --- and Nice, being nice, agrees.
The metaphor, however, is clear. The story focuses on how the other two characters react to the fact that their friend is gone, and it's extremely affecting, even if you don't know the story behind it, and that they're dealing with the death of Mr. Nice's real-life inspiration. And if you do go in knowing that --- or if you realize it when you see the "Dedicated to Archie Goodwin" tag on the last page --- then it's a genuine heartbreaker.
That Goodwin could leave a legacy like that, both on the page with his creations, and off the page with how well-regarded he was by fans and peers alike, speaks pretty well of him.
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