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November 14, 2011


Leslie Noel Daniels III, 1943-2011

imageThe writer Les Daniels died at an unknown moment before November 4 in his Providence apartment, local media sources have reported. Daniels' body was identified by his friend, the illustrator Steve Gervais, on that day, who told the Providence Journal that it looked like Daniels had been dead a couple of days by the time he saw the body. The police had been called after other acquaintances worried that the they had not been in contact with the writer for an extended period of time. Daniels was a diabetic waiting to receive surgery for a heart-valve replacement. No autopsy was requested. Daniels was 68 years old.

Daniels born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1943. He was a reader of comics and horror novels as a child -- he cited early encounters with Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe in a 1995 interview -- and like many of that generation of fandom was a devotee of the works of HP Lovecraft. Daniels also made his own comics as a child, which he later describes as being very limited in terms of their art. The future author was educated at Brown University, where he graduated in 1968 having written a thesis on Frankenstein.

Daniels was best known in comics circles for his non-fiction books on the form and its major players. 1971's Comix: A History Of The Comic Book In America, sporting a cover by Daniels' long-time friend and fellow Brown alumnus John Peck, was a groundbreaking, widely-disseminated volume, best remembered for the nuances of its approach compared to other, early comic book histories. Daniels largely eschewed a common set-up of various "ages" of superhero potency and relevancy interspersed with a few additional expressions not of the cape-and-cowl variety for a broader approach based on general artistic achievement and mainstream cultural potency, with a through-line regarding censorship issues. The various chapters included a strong critical reading of the extremely popular humor and funny animal comic books of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s all but ignored by the gatekeepers of the Golden and Silver Ages; a consideration of Marvel Comics as a broad artistic achievement rather than as a fount for popular licensed properties; and an early reading of the underground comix movement for the high quality of its best work and those books' general challenge to cultural assumptions about what makes a healthy society as well as a good comic book. Of all the comics histories of its era, Comix: A History Of The Comic Book In America is the one that most resembles a potent swathe of current thinking about comics. Widely available in libraries' early attempts at stocking books on the form, it was a gateway for many young readers into those ways of thinking and also to many of the comics and creators themselves.

imageDaniels wrote a pair of high-production books that serve as company histories, both released to coincide with those business' respective anniversaries : Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (Abrams, 1991) and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes (Watson-Guptill, 2003), and a few well-regarded books on a specific character, Superman: The Complete History (Chronicle, 1998). Batman: The Complete History (Chronicle, 1999) and Wonder Woman: The Life And Times Of The Amazonian Princess (Chronicle, 2000). The Superman and Batman profile books enjoyed six and four printings, respectively. Daniels also wrote The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days in 2004. Of the two more broadly-conceived books, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades remains the more intriguing, coming at a time in that company's history where Marvel was beginning to become soaked in the hubris of its pre-movie media empire building attempt. In contrast with Comix, Daniels' mainstream comics company books tended to endorse accepted narratives, or at least moved briskly through well-known controversies. (Daniels' friend Stephen Bissette writes here that the author both recognized and chafed at these restrictions.) Daniels' later comics history books are, however, solidly written and generally grounded in fact-based presentation. They are certainly among the few books of their type that are written with enough rigor to be the basis for facts employed in other, more focused-study books about comics. They were certainly read over and over by young fans of those two companies.

Daniels was also an author of fiction, writing five novels featuring the vampire character Don Sebastian de Villanueva. Those books contrasted the amoral protagonist with the greater evils of human history. The five books in the series were The Inquisition in The Black Castle (1978), The Silver Skull (1979), Citizen Vampire (1981), Yellow Fog (1986/1988) and No Blood Spilled (1991). A sixth and final book in the series called White Demon was begun but never finished.

Daniels was a three-time nominee for a World Fantasy Award. He was nominated twice for prose short-stories, "They're Coming For You" in 1986 and "The Little Green Ones" in 1993, and once for the 1998 Superman book from Chronicle.

Daniels' passion for comics ran double-helix style with a concurrent interest in the horror genre. He hosted series on horror films in the Providence area starting in the 1970s and penned the book Living in Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media in 1975 and Dying Of Fright: Masterpieces Of The Macabre in 1976. He wrote about movies more generally starting in the 1980s via a column in the Providence Eagle, where he also co-wrote a column on the Providence scene. A nightclub act from the 1970s featured Daniels with a friend talking back to terrible movies, which they later turned into a low-budget horror movie.

Also in the 1970s Daniels was a part of one of comedian and actor Martin Mull's then semi-frequent musical efforts, the 1974 Vanguard LP called In The Soop. Mull and Daniels had met while Mull was a student at RISD. Daniels wrote the song "Do The Nothing" for that album. At least one obituary for the author identifies Daniels as a bluegrass musician; he played the banjo.

Daniels had foot surgery a few years ago, and had since that time become an object of devoted care by members of the Providence scene he helped found. It was members of that group that worried after his absence, found his body, and no doubt feel his departure most keenly.

Editor's note: There will be some disagreement in the obituaries out there about the day of Daniels' death. I think the discrepancies are due to the official declaration of death coming on the 5th after the Providence police processing the discovery of the body, but I'm not 100 percent sure about that. For now I'll stick with the Providence Journal's print version which has a witness close to Mr. Daniels identifying the body in the way described above.
 
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