From Sgt. Rock to Metal Men: Robert Kanigher Was One of Comics’ Great Creative Minds
June 18 marks the birthday of Robert Kanigher, the man who wrote the book on how to make money writing comics. And I mean that literally.
Among his many accomplishments in a career that spanned four decades was the publication of How To Make Money Writing in 1943. At the time, Kanigher was already ten years into writing professionally, and in addition to sections on writing for radio shows, films and the stage, the book featured tips for aspiring creators who were looking to break into this brand-new medium called comics. Looking back, that book's a footnote, but I have to imagine that there were some good tips in there, considering that Kanigher would go on to co-create some of DC's greatest characters, including Poison Ivy, Sgt. Rock, and, in 1958, Barry Allen, the character who would launch the Silver Age of Comics as the Flash.
Kanigher was undoubtedly one of the most important creators in DC Comics history, but his career was marked as much by his extremely prolific output --- one of the secrets that he passed along in his book --- as it was by the variety of what he created. In addition to working on superhero titles like Flash, Batman and his nine-year run on Wonder Woman with Ross Andru, Kanigher worked on everything from romance titles to war comics, and ended up having a hand in some of DC's most offbeat creations.
In 1962, he and Andru would team up again to create the Metal Men in the pages of Showcase, giving life to one of the best and weirdest comics of the Silver Age. The team of shape-shifting elemental robots created by Dr. Will Magnus and given personalities through high-tech "responsometers" weren't just sent on bizarre adventures, they were frequently destroyed by them, ending several issues in the scrap heap before being cheerfully rebuilt just in time for their next foray into the world of weirdness, duking it out with the Rain of the Missile Men or the toxic terror of Chemo. The stories were certainly a product of their time, and they were definitely built around a formula, but they're exactly the kind of weirdness that holds up even today.
Kanigher's greatest success, and most of his output, would undoubtedly come from DC's war comics. With legendary artist Joe Kubert, he created Sgt. Rock and Easy Co., and would write the bulk of their adventures until his retirement. His stories were marked by action and a weariness of combat that made his characters seem human, even while they were battling Nazi supermen with metal fists and shooting down airplanes with handguns. But while Rock might've had that glow of realism to it, war comics also provided the jumping off point for some of his stranger creations: The War That Time Forgot, in which soldiers battled against an island of dinosaurs (awesome) and The Creature Commandos, in which a crack team of monsters, including a vampire, a werewolf, a Medusa, and a Frankenstein named Lucky, were sent to assassinate Hitler (super awesome).
It was in that book where Kanigher's legendary temper most famously flared up on the page, although not for the first time. His responses to the letters in Wonder Woman were notoriously snippy towards the nitpicking of his readers, but when Creature Commandos was canceled, the last issue saw the team rocketed into the depths of space for "showing humanity" by a ungrateful Paul Levitz, along with a mysterious pipe-smoking man named "R.K."
Despite his temper, though, Kanigher was one of DC's most reliable writers, with a staggering output. I mentioned earlier that he was prolific, but the most famous example came when a cover for an issue of GI Combat went to production with a note on the cover reading, "Drop an inch." It was meant to be an instruction to lower the art so that it wouldn't be covered by the book's title, but the letterer misunderstood it as the title of a story that warranted a cover blurb, and added "Featuring Drop An Inch!" to the cover.
Rather than taking the time to cover up the blurb or redo the cover layout, Kanigher simply ate at his desk that day and knocked out a nine-page lead story for the next issue over his lunch hour.
Even beyond his major, popular creations like Poison Ivy and the Silver Age Flash, Kanigher's career was marked by an incredible output of constant ideas. Comics, and especially DC Comics, certainly wouldn't be the same without him. Happy Birthday, Bob!
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