Tuesday, 24 January 2012

LES DANIELS: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

NOTE: I wrote this obituary of Les Daniels back in November, but it got shunted aside during the holiday season, and two months later has passed its sell-by date for the paper, so it appears here for the first time.

Les Daniels, who has died aged 68, will be remembered best as an historian of comic books, author of official histories of both Marvel and DC Comics, and some of their most famous superheroes. His most important work in the field was Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (1971). Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965) is generally considered the first mainstream comics' history, and Daniels' book came after 1970's fan-based All In Color For A Dime. But Comix was the first to trace comics from their roots in pulp magazines, through the Forties' so-called Golden Age of superheroes, and their doldrums during the 1950s' censorship brought on by psychologist Frederic Wertham's attacks on the industry in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Daniels was particularly telling on this, since his own favourite comics, the EC horror line, were Wertham's prime target. Daniels detailed the Sixties renaissance sparked by Marvel and stoked by the rise of underground comics, or comix. He was the first to eschew gosh-wow nostalgia in favour of a serious, but never academic, appreciation of the medium as art., and showcased artists, among them Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, who would not achieve mainstream acclaim until years later.

Appropriately, given his love of EC comics, Daniels had an equally important, if less noted, career in the horror field. Following the success of films like The Exorcist and The Omen, his 1975 book 'Living In Fear: A History of Horror In Mass Media', approached horror with the same artistic seriousness had comics. He edited a companion anthology, Dying Of Fright, and, with his sister Diane, another anthology, 13 Tales of Terror, designed for teachers.

Soon after, he became a key part of the first boom in vampire fiction, led by Fred Saberhagen's novels about an heroic Dracula, starting with The Dracula Tapes (1975) and Anne Rice's best-selling Lestat series launched in 1976. Beginning with The Black Castle (1978), set during the Spanish Inquistion, Daniels published five novels featuring the vampire Don Sebastian De Villanueva. Mixing horror and apocalyptic history, he placed Don Sebastian in situations, such as the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, the French Revolution's Reign of Terror, or Britain's Imperial Raj in India, where humans wielded greater destructive evil than vampires.

The arc of this peripatetic career might best be ascribed to Daniels' following his own enthusiasms, an urge he traced back to his mother's throwing out his comic book collection when was he was only nine years old. He was born 27 October 1943 in Danbury, Connecticut, and grew up in nearby, rural, Redding. His father, who wrote radio adventures like Jack Armstrong All-American Boy, primed his interest in horror by giving him a collection of Ambrose Bierce's stories. He was so taken with H.P. Lovecraft's tales that he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he earned BA and MA dregres from Brown University, writing his master's thesis on Frankenstein. He would stay in Providence the rest of his life, and in 1970, with artist John 'Mad' Peck, create a four-panel poster of life in that city, playing ironically on streets with names like Friendship and Hope, which is still a local best-seller.

He was also a talented bluegrass banjo player, and hooked up with a Rhode Island School of Design student named Martin Mull to write and perform songs described by Bob Booth as 'a cross between the Foggy Mountain Boys and Monty Python'. They formed The Double-Standard String Band with Sam Tidwell and his bass-playing brother Marc—Tidwell went on to a career as a bluegrass virtuoso, while Mull became a successful comedian and actor in Hollywood. Mull and Daniels reunited on a 1974 album of comic folk songs called In The Soop. In 1998 Daniels and Rick Lee recorded an album called Dr Daniels and Mr Lee, new versions of his Mull collaborations , and followed it with a release of 1966 tapes of a live performance by the Double Standard band. In the Seventies he was hired by Dino DeLaurentis to write an unproduced disco-horror screenplay, and then teamed with comic Rudy Cheeks to write Comediac, about a serial killer obsessed with the Three Stooges. Sadly, it was never made. Daniels also performed in Providence clubs giving comic commentary while horror movies were played on the screen, long before such formats were used on TV.

But primarily he was devoted to his writing, whether introductions for independently-produced adaptations of Lovecraft, or producing authorised histories for the big comics companies. That the same man would be trusted to chronicle two arch-rivals like Marvel and DC speaks to his objectivity, as well as his talent for researching and ordering the chaotic back-story of an industry which never assumed itself to have any value for posterity. He did histories of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, winning an Eisner award for the last, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award four times. Daniels died in Providence on 5 November, of a heart attack. He is survived by his sister.

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