Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sense of Wonder: Bill Schelly’s Odyssey

First, this is not a review of Bill Schelly’s new book, Sense of Wonder. I want to write about this wonderful book because it captures the spirit of MY reading, following and even leaving the world of comics.  And then coming back.

I want your help!!! In the comments section, I hope you will take the time and tell us your story of what brought you into this realm.

Comic collecting is autobiographical. Bill Schelly’s Sense of Wonder demonstrates that perfectly.  Comic collecting is not just a hobby; it somehow becomes part of our DNA, a necessary component of our life.

It is also true that, like many of us, Bill cannot let go of this subject. His first Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom” was published in 2001. This is a totally different book. It’s twice the size and has a very different perspective.  What remains of the original is strongly rewritten. Honestly I enjoyed the first one so much that I was anxious to read the second.

Schelly: “Understanding the lure of comic fandom—or any kind of fandom, from Star Trek to Doctor Who—might be difficult for those who don’t feel its pull. Even those of us who have been a part of such a group don’t often think about our reasons for joining in. We’re doing what comes naturally to us.”

It has often surprised me, the commonalities that readers have.  Bill recalls his trip to Chicago, in 1960, when he was eight years old. His parents, hoping to keep him occupied, bought him his first comic, Superman Annual #1.  His father complained that it was a costly 25 cents when comics were supposed to cost a dime! Bill read it endlessly! And he carried it with him for the next decade or two or maybe more.    


Ironically, when DC republished this annual in 1998, Mike Carlin, seemed to have Bill in mind

Let me go off on a Bender here, or at least a Binder, Otto Binder.  Six of the stories in the Superman Annual, and most famously “The Supergirl From Krypton,” were written by Otto Binder, who would have a great influence in Bill’s life. Bill writes, “In 2000 there weren’t any book-length biographies of comic book writers or artists, what I call “true bios… I was discussing this on the phone with Roy Thomas one day…“Someone should write a book about a comic book writer,” he said. “For instance, Otto Binder,” Bill replied. “The Otto Binder biography was the first book I wrote in my freshly finished basement office, a much larger space than I’d had upstairs.”

So, in some ways Bill had carried Superman Annual #1 with him, always.

Bill wrote: “I would gradually come to understand that the colorful characters whom I met on that 1960 vacation would be with me in one form or another for the rest of my life. Like the train that carried me across America, the hobby that grew out of my love of comics would be the vehicle that would take me to a new world of dreams and endeavors.”

Well, my experience was totally different!!!! J We were travelling to New York, in 1959, when I was eight years old and my parents bought me my first comic, World’s Finest #102, which featured “The Caveman from Krypton!” 

I knew Superman from the TV show and I knew Batman. I was introduced to Tommy Tomorrow and the world of science fiction. In reading Bill’s story, I wondered how many parents bought comics just to keep their kids quiet. Just like Bill, and just like many addicts, the first samples of our addictions were free!  With my aunt owning a candy store that sold comics, mine were freer than most.

But the most important event in my collecting came about 1964, when I spent a summer in the hospital due to foot and leg problems. I wrote a fan letter to Marvel and in return received a box full of comics and a letter signed by Stan, Flo Steinberg (Stan’s secretary) and the gang.  Until then, my hospital world was black and white; now it was in color.  Please don’t tell me that the Marvel super-heroes were fiction and they never really saved anyone. That summer they saved me.

At the New York Comic Con in 2005 I went up to Flo while everyone else went up to Stan. I told her how they had sent me a box of comics when I was in the hospital in 1964. I knew it was she who sent it because I called Marvel to thank them, way back then. (You could do such things in those days…) We became friends and she asked to see the actual letter. When I showed her (what? You think I’d lose a letter from Marvel Comics?), she said, "I knew it!  I wrote it and Stan signed it!”
I asked a few people about their first comics:

Roy Thomas: My late mother used to tell me that I spotted some comic books on the newsstand at Jones Drug Store in Jackson, MO, when I was maybe four, in early 1945--if not sooner.  But I've no idea what comic she first bought for me--probably something with Superman or Batman.  She'd read them to me, and until I learned to read them for myself I thought they were Souperman (getting his power from soup) and Badman and Robber (a couple of crooks, clearly, since they wore masks).  Sometime in the next few months I discovered ALL-STAR COMICS and its heroes like Hawkman and Green Lantern.
Mark Evanier: I have no idea what my first comic book was...probably something Disney, probably something issued before I could read.  I do not remember a minute of my life when I not only didn't have comics but I didn't have more than anyone else I knew.
My first comic book of a super-hero variety was Action Comics #250 (two issues before the advent of Supergirl!) and the cover story was Superman and "The Eye of Metropolis" written by Bill Finger and drawn by Wayne Boring.  It was followed by a Tommy Tomorrow story drawn by Jim Mooney and a Congorilla story drawn by Howard Sherman.
Today, it seems like a pretty ordinary issue, but at the time, it was one of the most exciting things I'd ever read.  I especially liked the Superman story which wasn't all that different from the Superman I knew from the George Reeves TV show.
I got hooked and immediately began hitting the local second-hand book shops which sold old comic books for a nickel apiece, six for a quarter.
Naturally, I only bought my comics in multiples of six.  Within three months, I must have had a collection of Superman and Batman comics that exceeded 500 -- and of course, given my age and the newness of it all, those were among the 500 best comics ever done, except for the issues of Wonder Woman.

Tony Isabella: My mother and other adults would read comic books to me. I kind of sort of think these were funny animal comics and not from the major brands like Dell or DC.

I wanted to eliminate the middle man, so to speak, so I taught myself to read from comic books. I was reading on my own before anyone knew I was reading on my own. Someone realized I could read and told my very surprised mother.

The first comic books I bought for myself were Superman and/or Casper the Friendly Ghost because I knew them from television. I don't recall specific issues.

Bill Schelly: “There’s no doubt that Amazing Spider-Man #7 was the first Marvel comic book I bought, as well as my first exposure to the art of Steve Ditko. His unique style of drawing faces, positioning the figures, and composing the panels impressed me from the start….Ditko quickly became a personal favorite, along with Jack Kirby.”

Again, I had a similar beginning with Marvel. I realized that I was a Marvel fan with issue #8 of Amazing Spider-Man, with Ditko’s compelling and yet unconventional art. His world was darker, it often seemed “wet” as after a rainstorm and the stories didn’t always have a happy ending. Spider-Man would win, but Peter Parker would lose. 

Kirby’s Fantastic Four #19, “The Prisoners of the Pharaoh,” also drew me in. Only in the Justice League of America did DC have full-length stories, whereas Marvel had them everywhere. There was not just action and excitement in Fantastic Four #19, but there were emotions of disappointment and even sadness. The heroes even failed in their prime mission. And I felt Ben Grimm’s grief.

As Bill’s story unfolds, he explains his growing love, and infatuation with comics. Through his eyes we learn of the history of fandom and fanzines: “The first was for a ’fanzine’ called The Rocket’s Blast-Comicollector (RBCC for short). The second was for the RBCC Special #1 featuring a long article on Timely (Marvel) Comics… The first ones I received after RBCC were Yancy Street Journal (devoted solely to Marvel comics), Batmania (dedicated to the Dynamic Duo), and Fighting Hero Comics.”

This sort of fandom goes back to the 1930s with magazines such as Fantasy Magazine, published by Julius Schwartz, who would become an editor at DC.

These fanzines, including Alter Ego by Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas, encouraged a young Bill to create his own fanzine, “… I carried the copies of Super-Heroes Anonymous #1 to the mailbox on the corner, opened its metal mouth, and shoved them in, five at a time. The moment gave me a tiny shiver. They weren’t ‘mine’ any more. I had released them to the wider world… For better or worse, we were publishers.”

Bill, of course, also wrote a few letters to the comic book editors.  Here is one from Creeper #3:

I wrote letters also.  Here are the postcards I recieved alerting me to their publication:

Bill establishes a fact that is very important, and one I emphasize in my own book. We were not born knowing the history of comics, or who created what. This was a series of mysteries that we had to solve.  And producing his fanzine opened the door to a world of discovery: “The truth is, I wasn’t alone. I had become a member of a brotherhood. After Super-Heroes Anonymous appeared, I began receiving mail from dealers, fanzine editors, writers, artists, and collectors. This even meant getting an original Captain America poster from Jack Kirby!!!”

Avid comic book readers tend to be literate and read a lot.  Bill, for example, loved the James Bond books of the 1960s and read all of them. Well, so did I.  I loved the adventure and excitement and how Ian Fleming drew out his characters.  I guess that was something we also found in comics.  Again, like many of us, Bill writes that his, “TV favorites were The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Secret Agent, and the spy comedy Get Smart. Well, I not only watched those also, but in later life, got the DVDs.”

Just a few of my Bond books....

As with so many others of that era, Bill’s journey brought him to Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), which had a huge influence on young comic book fans. “This book had a tremendous effect on me, not only because it gave me an opportunity to read a number of the best Golden Age stories, but also because it validated my continuing interest in comics. It was as if the book said to adults, “It’s okay to like comics.”

In presenting the history of fandom and fanzines, Bill discusses concepts I shared. What drives us to collect, what drives us to bond with people we have never met, and what keeps us going. He doesn’t draw many conclusions, but puts out many ideas that will make you think.

It’s fun to read Bill’s encounters with comic book celebrities, such as a young Jim Shooter in the mid 1960s, who was writing the Legion of Super-Heroes at the time. “Everyone watched as Jim Shooter created a beautiful pencil drawing of Iron Man smashing through a brick wall. (Remember, he was still working exclusively for DC Comics.) As far as I can recall, this special fanzine never saw print.” And years later Shooter didn’t recognize Bill at a comic convention.

Bill’s contact with famous artists did not always run smooth, as we see in his interactions with Steve Ditko. Bill once published a Mr. A story on pink paper. Ditko responded, “I was shocked and dismayed that you printed a cover featuring Mr. A, whose credo is that there’s only black and white with no shades of gray, on colored paper. It goes against the whole basis of the character. It should have been printed in black ink on white paper only. Why is it that I get burned every time I do something for the fan press?” That last sentence tells a lot about Ditko’s perception of the fan press. But Ditko is also a forgiving man and once again will contribute to a fanzine by Bill.

Vince Colletta is a controversial figure in comics, equally admired and disdained.  Trying to break into comics, Bill showed him and Julie Schwartz his own artwork. Colletta, after criticizing Bill’s art, also said something revealing: “I’m no great talent, but the main thing is, I get the work done on time.”

In speaking to Jack Kirby about the characters he was famous for, Bill said to him: “In your mind, they must be very real to you.”  Kirby gave a revealing reply, “No, they actually exist,” he responded. “I know them intimately.”

As Bill traces the history of fanzines, he tells an interesting tale about Fredrick Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, who subscribed to one of bill’s fanzines and wrote to Bill: “I find the whole phenomenon of fanzines to be very interesting indeed. Here are hundreds or perhaps thousands of teenagers and young adults who are working mightily to produce magazines simply as a form of their own creative expression. This seems like a positive, healthy activity that merits study.”
Bill is kinder in regards to Wertham than I am.

You see, I like girls. I always liked girls. In fact, for much of my youth, I thought about girls all the time. Girls did not mix with comics, they didn’t like them and they often didn’t like the guys who read them, so I hid my comics and learned not to talk about them. I even gave up comics in 1977 because the cost of a comic hit a high of 35 cents (even more for annuals and the Marvel magazines) and I needed that money for dating!!!!

I bring this up because of my research into the history of comics.  In the 1960s, there were VERY few books out discussing the history of comics and none discussing the history of comic books.  So I used the microfilm library, of old newspapers and magazines, in school to find the history of comics in articles.  All microfilmed roads lead to the 1954 hearings on comics, led by Senator Kefauver, who did his best to associate comics with Juvenile Delinquency, rape and homosexuality (his term). So for the first time I read the name of Fredrick Wertham, whose Seduction of the Innocent linked comic book reading, especially of Batman and Robin, to homosexuality. Now, I was only ten or eleven years old and wasn’t even sure what this meant.

Here are Wertham’s actual words: “Several years ago a California psychiatrist pointed out that the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual. Our researches confirm this entirely. Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature "Batman" and his young friend "Robin." Male and female homoerotic overtones are present also in some science-fiction, jungle and other comic books.
The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious. In adolescents who realize it, they may give added stimulation and reinforcement.
A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick. (Bad choice of words, I would say. - Barry)

So, Batman and Robin were gay? Huh? I liked Batman and Robin.  And I liked girls. And I couldn’t understand how reading Batman made me not like girls. A few years later, I especially liked Catwoman, especially when played by Julie Newmar!) And Batgirl! (Yvonne Craig), too.  My feelings toward girls had nothing to do with what I read. If I had to think about it, I’d have to say that’s just the way I was born. What the hell was this idiot doctor talking about? I didn’t need comics to give me impure thoughts about women. I had them already just from noticing how soft and pretty girls could be. Wertham, however, went both ways on this.  Comics either made you gay or a rapist. And we know from his notes, now in the Library of Congress, that he made up many of his observations, let alone his conclusions.

At a young age then, I assumed the same must be true for gay people; they are born that way. If we had a choice, in 1960s America, we would all be born white, male, six feet tall, Christian, and straight because those people had the best opportunities. (Think Mad Men.) Bill happens to be gay (and yes, he did like Batman and Robin). Yet, despite our differences when it came to whom we wanted to take to the prom, Bill, too, was drawn into the universe of comics. 

Could it be that we each found relief and comfort in the fantasy world of comics? In its imagined world, the good guys always win; the bad people get what is coming to them. If all else fails, rebooting gives you a second chance to get things right. As a child Bill seemed especially vulnerable to neighborhood bullies. I had the same problem because of my limp. In comics, disabilities are overcome. Take a look at Captain Marvel, Jr., Daredevil, Don Blake, Professor X, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, and even Ben Grimm, The Thing.

Comic books got us through the tough time of burgeoning adolescence. They helped us by showing how a hero behaved nobly despite all odds, by demonstrating over and over that heroes can’t help being who they are, and that as much as they might like to, they can’t turn their backs on what they are.

One thing Bill was not able to overcome was the harsh reactions to his work by the aforementioned Colletta and Schwartz and even Jim Warren of Creepy and Eerie fame. That was hard to read because you empathized with Bill’s desire to get into the business he so admired.

              Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!
Both Bill and I had a long sabbatical from comics that began at the same time, about 1974. At this time, comics had lost a lot of their Golden and Silver Age creators and DC and Marvel were bought by corporations whose sole interests were how much money could be got out of them. We both came back, but concentrated our efforts not on modern comics but on those that we remembered. Bill’s previous books include one on comic fandom and in this present volume, he tells entertaining stories of his researches for his books on Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Kubert and Little Lulu. We both used our retirements to concentrate and write about what we loved.  Encouraged by the great Tony Isabella, I finally finished my “Marvel Age Companion” and have done work with Taschen. (“75 Years of Marvel” and “The Marvel Age of Comics)”

When I was writing my Sense of Wonder memoir, I happened to be listening to an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, and found his words meaningful. He was being interviewed about his autobiographical play Prodigal Son. The interviewer asked him, "What do you get out of sharing your life with audiences?" Shanley answered, "I think that we don't really want to be alone. I think that society is a central part of the human experience. When we go through all of the things that we go through ... we look around and see that those are things that we are not going through alone in a vacuum, and that's a real solace. And I write plays to get that solace and give that solace."

Similarly, I wrote Sense of Wonder to evoke in the reader his or her own memories and feelings and experiences, as a member of comic fandom, as an aspiring artist or writer, as a member of a minority group (gay or whatever). It's not an ego thing, it's about sharing what it is to be a human being--Bill Schelly

Once again, I'd like to thank Carl Thiel for his help on this blog. Here is his story, what's yours?

The first comic book I remember reading belonged to my cousin, who was six years older than I. The book was Superman Annual #7 (1963), celebrating the Silver Anniversary of the Man of Steel. The length of the book was an impressive 80 pages and the sense of history therein, with its cover illustration of a silver statuette prominently celebrating 25 years of Superman, even to my eight-year-old mind, was profound.

I regret that I wasn't aware of the beginning of the Marvel Age, but I was six in 1961; I wouldn't see an issue of The Fantastic Four for two years. I recall reading Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963) with the multi-armed villain Doctor Octopus on the cover. I would have to wait until the earlier stories were reprinted in order to experience them. And I mean EXPERIENCE for reading a Marvel comic after 1963 WAS an experience. The art and story-telling was dynamic; the story moved!

Here's just one example: For a hero who couldn't fly, Spider-Man spent a great deal of time in the air, swinging on his web across the rooftops of the city or twisting his body as he dodged the blows of a villainous gang.

The first comics that convinced me I was reading something radically different from the competition were Avengers #3 (Jan 1964) and Fantastic Four #26 (May 1964). The Avengers cover called out accurately: "THIS is the issue you've been waiting for!!" and yes, it was. Here was a world I didn't know existed. (What the heck, I was eight years old!) A world of troubled heroes and angst-ridden romance all mixed together in the synoptic view of Stan Lee. Both Avengers #3 and FF #26, coincidentally, featured the Incredible Hulk who was not a villain but rather a conflicted antagonist. I didn't know that he had had his own short-lived magazine until I got further involved. (The introduction of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics and other reprint titles in the mid-sixties would provide a welcome opportunity to actually read these early stories.) And both issues, not so coincidentally, were drawn by Jack Kirby.

What impressed me the most were the fight scenes. Whereas fight scenes in a DC comic lasted all of half a page, a fight in a Marvel comic could take up half the book. In fact, the fight between the Hulk and the Thing that opens FF#26 had begun in the previous issue (which I had not seen) and WAS SUSTAINED with other heroes joining in for almost the entirety of the present one. Add the sympathy and the drama of Mr. Fantastic's illness; the heroes getting clobbered but getting back up and rejoining the fray; Captain America (who I wanted to be); even the Wasp buzzing inside the Hulk's ear to distract him -- all these scenes imbued me with a sense of excitement about the medium heretofore unknown.

I know we're talking comic books here, but Marvel seemed to place their heroes in situations that were somehow less ridiculous than DC. DC's stories were static, like a situation comedy TV show; no matter what went on in one episode, the next began as if nothing had happened. There was almost no continuity from year to year, let alone month to month. Marvel routinely featured stories spread over more than one issue which allowed for ample character development. They fell in love and broke up. (For real!) We (and I think I speak for most readers) came to care about the characters.

It would still take me another year after experiencing the wonders of FF #26 until I began buying all of Marvel's super-hero titles every month. 1965 was my banner year. I would turn 10 and comics became my life until girls discovered me at the age of 17.