David Avallone’s Writer’s Commentary on Bettie Page Unbound #6 on sale now from Dynamite.
New arc! Hooray! A good place to jump in and start reading. If you haven’t read the issue yet… this is just going to be a mass of spoilers. Fair warning.
Covers: John Royle continues his run of “Bettie-as-Iconic-Hero” with a Dorothy Gale Bettie rolling in a field of poppies. Enough to encourage a trip to Oz, for sure. Royle does a great Bettie-as-Catwoman cover. Scott Chantler has a typically amusing cover, with Bettie watching a 1950s TV (an element from this issue) with monsters looming behind her. Pasquale Qualino’s cover shows a bathing beauty Bettie on and has a very cool water effect. The photo cover is Bettie in a “djinni” costume; a lovely picture I’d never seen before. David Williams cover is Bettie in an Indiana Jones kind of situation, and though there was something familiar about it, I couldn’t place where. I noticed it said “after Kirby” next to David’s signature, so I asked him what he was referencing. He told me and I tracked down the original. You’ll agree that he really made it his own.
Page 1: To start with an embarrassing confession: this somehow went to press missing the first two caption boxes in panel one. My guess is I probably approved this page on my phone and my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Did you wonder why Bettie started with “But” in panel 2?
Well, here’s what you missed:
1. CAPTION/BETTIE: Usually, the cases all started the same way.
2. CAPTION/BETTIE: McKnight would hand me a file, and I would be off to the races.
Sigh. We’ll fix it in the trade.
As McKnight says, Pitcairn Island is where the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty ended up. So that’s where the Captain, his pirates, the Forest Boys, the mermaid Lyssa and the intelligent Crocodile have ended up. For now. I have every intention of getting back to them someday…
Colonel Finney is named after the author Jack Finney. If you don’t recognize the name, I’ll save you the Google: Jack Finney wrote the novel THE BODY SNATCHERS, which inspired the many movies titled INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Always tip the hat to the creators who inspired you. As seen on the next page, I had to make a pun out of his classic 1950s alien invasion title…
Pages 2 & 3: Julius Ohta, everybody. Look at the action and the emotion on this page. Julius is an amazing artist: he should be world-famous (or at the very least, much more comics-famous) for his unbelievable talent. On top of his artistic excellence, he shares my obsession with period detail and getting it “right.” An example: I didn’t have to tell him that Colonel Finney wouldn’t be wearing his hat indoors. I did ask a bunch of USAF vets if McKnight would be compelled by military discipline to salute when his superior officer entered the room, and the answer was no.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about Taylor Esposito, letterer extraordinaire, and his evocative effects design and placement on his page. Top notch stuff.
Page 4: It’s the little things. The lack of emotion on Finney’s face, the wind untucking his dress shirt, the shock and confusion on Bettie’s face. All Julius.
Page 5: I didn’t plan it perfectly. I had no idea which exact date this issue would come out. But this scene takes place the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (1952) and came out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (2019.) That kind of thing makes me very happy. This is a good spot to mention Ellie Wright’s amazing color work, which has been part of the series (like Julius) since volume 2, (The Princess and the Pinup) and it’s such a perfect “look” for the book it’s hard to imagine it any other way. Note the way Bettie’s purple winter coat “pops” among the more drab clothes of her fellow New Yorkers. Love the faces of the crowd, and the cop showing up in the last panel.
Page 6: I finally get to pay off an Easter Egg I planted in the series way back in volume one, issue three, when Lyssa Druke was introduced. When I was picking a last name for Lyssa, I thought about the history of African American heroes in pulp/genre fiction. I thought about how the Shadow had an agent, a bouncer at a Harlem nightclub, named Jericho Druke. I planted that seed at a time when Dynamite was doing Shadow comics and I wanted to be set up in case I ever got to do “Bettie Page Meets The Shadow”. Well, I never got a chance to do that… but here’s Jericho anyway. Julius and I agreed on archetypical faces for Jericho and Althea: see if you can figure out who they were physically based on.
Althea is named for the iconic tennis player Althea Gibson. She was one of the first African American athletes to cross the color line in international tennis. Won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, Wimbledon, etc. The Jackie Robinson of Tennis. If you’ve never heard of her, look her up and be amazed.
Bettie’s first line in Panel One is a reference to the Duke Ellington song: “Take the A Train.” The lyrics are “You must take the A Train, if you want to go to Harlem…”
Page 7: In doing my research for this issue, I was thrilled to find out that 1952 was the first year the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was televised… and that the centerpiece float was “the Spaceman” (here perfectly recreated by Julius.)
Check out the (ahem) shadow behind Jericho when he’s talking about his old boss. Yes, that was in the script. Julius executed it perfectly.
Pages 8 & 9: Bettie investigates. On page 9, we see “the man in the white trenchcoat” for the first time. Sometimes I am willing to admit I put way too much thought into small things. My father wrote a collection of short stories called TALES OF THE FRIGHTENED. Some of them were actually recorded by Boris Karloff for a couple of spoken word records. The first story is called, “The Man in the Rain Coat,” where the main character is trailed by a creepy man in a rain coat who drives him to his own death. Bettie says “Imagine tailing somebody in a white trenchcoat…” This is a line from the first paragraph of William S. Burroughs’ classic 1959 novel NAKED LUNCH. (Which is also where we got the name of Bettie’s long-time adversary Benway, who doesn’t appear in this arc.)
Next panel, we get yet another pulp Easter Egg. Patricia Incorporated, and its owner-operator, Patricia. You might have heard of her cousin, Doc. He works out of the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. In issue six of volume one, Bettie takes a meeting with McKnight on that floor, and McKnight says the office belongs to a friend who’s “out of town a lot.” Doc is just his nickname, of course. His real name is Clark Savage, Jr.
Pages 10 & 11: Bettie and Lyssa meet for a cocktail, joined (at a distance) by the man in the white trenchcoat and an associate. I particularly love Julius’ portraits of Bettie and Lyssa in this scene. I think Julius had only recently completed these pages when we got the news that Diahann Carroll had died. Diahann Carroll was a legend, a groundbreaker, a great actress… and the inspiration for Lyssa Druke. Julius keeps her beautifully alive in our pages, and I’m proud of that.
Page 12: As we learned last issue, in 1952 the Jersey Turnpike was brand new. Bettie repeats what she first said about herself in volume one, issue seven: leap first, look later. It’s a character-defining piece of self-awareness. The bare high walls of the lobby remind me a little bit of William Cameron Menzies creepy police station architecture in the classic INVADERS FROM MARS.
Page 13: Bettie and the receptionist trade code phrases. You might have noticed, through the book, that certain characters don’t have the bold/italic treatment which indicates putting stress on specific words. There’s a reason for that. It’s a “tell.”
Pages 14, 15 & 16: Bettie meets the Air Police: Blue Book’s internal security force. The Air Force Hymn is technically titled “The U.S. Air Force,” but informally people do refer to it by its first lyric, “Off we go.” When it’s obvious she won’t get past them the easy way, Bettie takes them down with her combat training. But why was it so easy? We’ll get to that in a later issue. I really love the reflections/shadows in the polished floor on these pages.
Page 17: I love the word “fantods.” It’s how people used to say “the creeps”, before people said “the creeps.” I thought about “gave me the screaming mimis” but “fantods” seemed more in keeping with Bettie’s background. I’ve said this before: for me, a big part of the pleasure of writing a book set in 1952 is using English as it was spoken at that time. I’m lucky, in that my father and mother spoke that lingo and I grew up hearing it, so it’s very familiar to me. I still look things up, though, to make sure they were being said in 1952 (and didn’t come into the language later.)
Page 18: I rarely give Julius super specific precise compositions that I want him to match: his compositions are fantastic and he needs no help from me in that regard. On this page, for some reason I wanted the shots of Bettie in front of the Air Policemen to evoke very specific shots in a very specific movie. I think you’ll agree he did a great job giving me what I wanted.
Page 19: So far we’ve seen a lot of flying saucer UFOs in this series. It’s all we’ve seen. I thought it was time for a rocket ship. In my script, I indicated that when the big door is opened there’s a rush of air (and the FOOSH sound effect.) Julius added Bettie holding onto her hat. Fantastic.
Page 20: The Hive! Bee-men from outer space! Come back next issue for the second chapter of INVASION OF THE BETTIE SNATCHERS, to see how Bettie gets out of this one.
As always… acknowledgement and thanks to Kevin Ketner for his full-service editing, and Joe Rybandt and Nick Barrucci for letting me play in their sandbox.
See you next time!