World War III has wiped out Earth’s population. A lone survivor wanders the rubble-strewn streets of New York, searching in vain for another living soul. In desperation, he rigs up a phone and begins dialing numbers at random, hoping that someone, anyone will answer. When nobody does, he ends his anguish by leaping out a window to his death.
And just as he jumps, the phone rings.
If that sounds like the synopsis of a film that could join Cellular and Phone Booth to form a telecommunications trilogy, guess again. Bob Ingersoll penned his doomsday tale in 1975 not for a Hollywood studio but for a small comic-book publisher in Connecticut. “Reflections in the Shards of Yesterday,” the first story Ingersoll ever sold, brought him $35 — and sudden career perspective on writing comic books.
“I sort of realized that at that rate, I wouldn’t be able to survive,” he says. “Five dollars a page wasn’t going to do it.”
So the Cleveland native turned to law, earning his J.D. from Case Western Reserve in 1981 and, the same year, joining the Cuyahoga County public defender’s office, where he remains today. But if Ingersoll chose a starched-collar day job, his muse still wears a mask and cape, spinning out scripts about superheroes, mutant villains and epic battles of Good vs. Evil.
Ingersoll’s office — or the Bat Cave, as his co-workers call it — suggests the busiest double life this side of Bruce Wayne. Case files and legal pads occupy his desk while a nearby table holds copies of the dozens of comic books he’s written. The titles range from two-fisted fare like The Green Hornet, Hero Alliance and Vigilante to books with a somewhat lower KA-POW! quotient, including Quantum Leap and Lost in Space. He’s also co-authored two novels, Captain America: Liberty’s Torch and Star Trek: The Case of the Colonist’s Corpse, the latter of which hit bookstores in 2004.
Unlike the Caped Crusader, however, the 52-year-old Ingersoll has little need for costume changes. Or, as it happens, starched collars. Thanks to his working in the public defender’s appellate division, he rarely has to appear in court — i.e., he leaves the suit and tie at home. Instead, he favors Superman and Bugs Bunny ties, literally wearing his good humor on his chest.
Yet beyond his choice of garb there lies a deeper symmetry between Ingersoll’s twin careers. He represents the less affluent to ensure due process; the heroes in his stories avenge the powerless. He seeks to overturn wrongful convictions; his fictional crime fighters struggle against all manner of injustice. And much like the well-intentioned genetic freaks he writes about, Ingersoll sometimes winds up scorned for his efforts.
“My clients aren’t necessarily the most popular people in the world. The fact that I defend them means I’m not necessarily the most popular lawyer in the world. But it’s the right thing to do,” says Ingersoll, who in the mid-’90s helped persuade an appeals court to commute convicted killer Tyson Dixon’s death penalty to life.
Adds Tom Condosta, his colleague and an avowed comics buff: “In a way, the old Superman motto — ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ — is what we’re doing here in the public defender’s office. Bob brings that same outlook to his writing.”
Stories about the pursuit of truth first captivated Ingersoll while growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. He loved Superman and Batman comic books, dime-store mystery magazines, television’s “Perry Mason.” Anything, in short, where the hero — whether Man of Steel, private eye or defense lawyer — saved the day.
It wasn’t long before young Ingersoll started creating his own superhero sagas, dreaming up storylines and then tracing comicbook figures to match the action. The practice enabled him to skirt one self-admitted failing: “I couldn’t draw at all.”
But Ingersoll could write. So following high school he attended Dartmouth, hoping to embark on a life in letters by majoring in Spanish. That’s not a misprint. In contrast to the English faculty, Ingersoll says, his Spanish professors “taught literature the way it should be taught.” They focused on story structure, plotting and character, stressing pragmatism over theory.
Alas, as he discovered after graduating in 1975 and returning to Cleveland, selling a story seemed possible only in theory. Rejection notes from comic-book and magazine publishers piled up like compost. “What can we do to convince you to try some other profession?” one letter began. “You do not write well.”
He ultimately broke through with “Reflections in the Shards of Yesterday.” Though that story never saw print, the same editor bought two more of his scripts — one about vampires, the other about a HAL-like homicidal computer — and published both. Glimpsing his name on the page, Ingersoll recalls, “offered a bigger thrill than getting either my high school or college diploma.”
If the money had been as big as the thrill, the world would have one fewer attorney. But Ingersoll decided to enroll in law school following an abortive attempt at teaching — “I wasn’t good at disciplining other people’s children” — and watching TV with his father one night.
In a commercial for Bayer aspirin, actor Roy Thinnes intoned that a recent medical survey “proved” Bayer posed fewer health risks than aspirin substitutes. “That’s not true,” Ingersoll retorted. “The study only said the substitutes might not be safer.”
Jack Ingersoll stared at his son. “You see? You should go into the law, ’cause you like that nitpicky stuff.”
One could guess that a “Perry Mason” fan would gravitate to criminal defense. More surprising is that during law school — where spare time goes to die — Bob Ingersoll continued writing fiction, selling scripts to DC Comics for a horror-series anthology, among other projects.
But his creativity hit the wall after he joined the public defender’s office in 1981 and, a year later, became a father. (He and his wife, Becky, have two children, 22-year-old Laura and Robby, 19.) The demands of a new job and parenthood left him as sapped as Superman in a roomful of Kryptonite.
Enter Tony Isabella. Ingersoll first met his fellow Ohioan in the mid-’70s during a visit to the New York offices of Marvel Comics, where Isabella worked as an editor and writer. Their friendship solidified when Isabella, who has scripted The Amazing Spider-Man, Black Lightning and scores of other titles, moved back to Cleveland a few years later to run a comic-book shop.
Not long after, Isabella began contributing articles to Comics Buyer’s Guide, a trade magazine and the Variety of the comic world. More than once he nudged his pal to do likewise, knowing that Ingersoll long had wanted to write a critique of how — and often how inaccurately — comics portray the legal system. But Ingersoll always begged off, citing his already bloated schedule.
Isabella finally resorted to the for-your-own-good approach. He met with the magazine’s editors and sold them on Ingersoll’s idea — without telling his friend in advance. Weeks later, “The Law Is a Ass” was born.
Ingersoll titled his article after a snippet of dialogue in Oliver Twist, in which Mr. Bumble huffs that “the law is a ass, a idiot.” What started as only a two- or three-part series in 1983 proved so popular that it soon evolved into a regular column.
Over the years, Ingersoll has skewered everything from nonsensical Justice League bylaws and RICO statutes to comic book character Matt Murdock’s frequent ethical lapses. “He’s defending people he captured,” Ingersoll says of the blind attorney who moonlights as Daredevil. “That’s an inherent conflict I never understand.”
He also examines how movies and TV depict the law, dumping perhaps his most bilious criticism on David E. Kelley, the lawyer-turned-producer behind “Boston Legal” and “The Practice.” The latter show’s improbable twists once inspired Ingersoll to write that he had a love-hate relationship with Kelley — “as in I love to hate his work.”
The column, apart from providing his spleen an aerobic workout, gave an instant boost to Ingersoll’s name recognition among comic book editors. They started accepting more of his submissions and offering projects, even asking him to write fill-in scripts for titles that he tweaked in “The Law Is a Ass.” He landed a three-year stint as the lead writer of Hero Alliance, a band of superheroes whose powers, if not their newsstand sales, rivaled those of the X-Men.
Ingersoll estimates that he can churn out a 40-page legal brief in two days, a fast-as-the-Flash writing speed that helps explain his prolific script output. Of course, quips his longtime collaborator Isabella, “he’s gotten so much better since he started working with me.”
The duo had teamed on numerous stories before authoring Captain America: Liberty’s Torch, a 1998 novel about a right-wing militia that kidnaps Cap to try him for treason. Last year they wrote Star Trek: The Case of the Colonist’s Corpse after an editor at Pocket Books suggested they concoct “a ‘Perry Mason’ mystery in space.”
“Bob brings an adult sensibility to his writing,” Isabella says. “Being a lawyer, he has a highly developed sense of justice.”
At the same time, Ingersoll disdains the current trend in comics of saddling superheroes with “adult” burdens like sexual dysfunction and bipolar disorder. He prefers the escapist, slambang thrust of classic comics, the kind of tale where a hero confronts evildoers, not his therapist.
“Bob’s old-school in a good way,” says Cleveland comic book letterer Thom Zahler, who credits Ingersoll with easing his path into the industry. “He’s never lost the ‘kid factor’ when it comes to telling a story.”
Ingersoll squeezes his fiction writing into the margins of his week, drawing inspiration from a phalanx of action figures that surround his home PC. He figures he’ll keep working in the Bat Cave until 2011, which will give him 30 years with the public defender and a full pension. After that, he hopes to devote more time to scripts and novels, chasing the same buzz he’s felt since he sold his first story three decades ago.
“Even now,” he says, “the only thing that surpasses that feeling is the first time you hold your child.”