Monday, February 25, 2019

James Warren: Creepy, Eerie & his "Empire of Monsters"

"Life with Warren was never boring."

The story of James Warren Taubman, who we know as James Warren, is the subject of a great new book by Bill Schelly entitled, “Empire of Monsters.” Bill has written several interesting biographies including those of Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman, John Stanley and Otto Binder. This is no exception, it is a book I did not want to put down.

What makes this book important and compelling is that it is of a publisher, not an artist or a writer. Publishers do not jump out of bed in the morning and say: “What great comic can I produce today?” They say: “How can I make more money?" As a publisher, Warren—like Eisner and Simon & Kirby before him— had to deal with distributors, editors, artists, and retailers in ways creative people don’t. His dealings with these people would determine his success or failure in the selling of his magazines. Warren did have some artistic talent and always felt that creativity was in his blood. So Schelly’s book is about the business of comics as well as the art.  

What made Warren want to publish comics in an era where more than 30 publishers had failed in the last decade? What made him choose genres previously vilified by parents and even Congress?

Roy Thomas: I became a buyer of the Warren mags with FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND #1 in 1958, which I bought uptown over my lunch hour and took to my senior English class... to the dismay of my teacher.  I was her top student, and she let it be known that she was disappointed me dragging around this magazine with a picture of a man in a Frankenstein mask and a--well, I don't know how she described the woman on the cover.  I made sure I kept it under my desk through the whole class, so it wouldn't get confiscated.

Bill Schelly writes: “He was more than merely the man who gave Gloria Steinem her first job in publishing, who put early work by Diane Arbus into print and who gave Robert Crumb’s cartoons their first national exposure. He had creative abilities of his own, as an art director, cartoonist and designer, as well as the capacity to understand what fans of comics and cinema wanted to read. He was also a highly controversial figure: a bombastic, self-confessed provocateur loved by some and hated by others.”

Many of the stories of comic book creators start in the same place, as they do here—Jewish immigrants coming to America. Jim Taubman was the only son of Jewish immigrants who settled in Philadelphia.

Jim Warren Taubman attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he joined the ROTC which paid for most of his tuition.  When he returned home from college he faced the tragedy so many comic fans have endured: his mother had thrown away his comic book collection, which included the early issues of Action Comics, Captain America, The Human Torch and others from the World War II era.

“The man who wanted to be Hugh Hefner”

Let’s jump to the publishing side. While Warren published many titles and one shots, let’s begin with his first successful title.

After working for a while in advertising with his uncle, Warren sets up his own advertising company.  A compelling aspect of Warren’s life, as presented here by Schelly, is the influence that Hugh Hefner, creator and publisher of Playboy magazine, had on him.  Warren was inspired by the process in which Playboy was published as well as its content and the talent used to create it.  Hefner’s reputation, celebrity status and lifestyle was something Warren wanted and tried to emulate throughout his own career.  It is a bit weird, but always fascinating.  Playboy, in the mid-1950s, saw its circulation grow to over one million copies a month (making Hefner a millionaire) and Warren wanted to catch that wave. So in 1956, with his friend, Daniel D. Goldberg, he put together “an inexpensive replica of Playboy.” It would be called After Hours.

It didn’t last long, but the importance of that publication was that Warren met Forrest J Ackerman After seeing Frankenstein on Shock TV on WOR-TV (Channel 9) in New York, Warren wanted to do a magazine of Horror. At the same time, children across America discovered and were delighted by the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and the Wolfman. This fascination came about because of a package deal between Universal Pictures and television stations.  When kids could see movies on the small screen that otherwise hadn't been available to view in their lifetimes, it created a renewed interest in movie monsters.  Like magazine publishers before him, Warren strove to capitalize on it.

Forry had a collection of some 30,000 stills from horror, fantasy and SF films, which he’d been amassing since 1929. Warren pitched the idea of a magazine devoted to monsters and horror. Forry agreed to provide the pictures and write the text for that magazine. Thus begins the saga of Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Back cover to Famous Monsters #20

Famous Monsters #20

Schelly explains the business end, that is, what Warren had to do to get the book not just printed but distributed. The nature of distribution and Warren’s relation to the distributor is life and death for any publication of that era. But so is the publisher’s relationship with his editors and contributors. Warren offered Ackerman $400 ($200 to start the job, and $200 upon completion), a new electric typewriter, and one hundred copies of the issue. Famous Monsters of Filmland went on sale February 27, 1958. It is a fascinating tale of how the magazine was published, with many twists and turns I did not know or expect. Famous Monsters originally sold less than half of the 200,000 comics printed. I was not a fan of Famous Monsters, although my brother was. It was too full of puns and prose meant for 12 year olds. While I grew up, the magazine didn’t, it was still for 12 year olds. But it did turn out to be a hit. Other Warren publications that quickly failed.

Forry Ackerman,was an editor for Ace Books at the same time he edited FM and had been a literary agent for dozens of science fiction authors. He knew this was a business, which he made clear in the magazine. “What I never seem to be able to put across to you and any number of readers like you is that the publisher dictates the policy of the magazine and I, as editor, only follow orders. Mr. Warren wants a funny, punny juvenile pair of monster magazines (including Screen Thrills Illustrated) because his experience has convinced him that that is what the majority of his readers want to buy. I, personally, would infinitely prefer to write on a high literary level for readers with college degrees but Spacemen magazine was our experiment in an imagi-movie publication of higher quality and it was a miserable financial flop. Mr. Warren scarcely needs emphasize that [FM] is a publishing success unapproached by a million miles by anyone else in the world.”

Ackerman felt the huge pressure from Warren when the sales began to slip, perhaps, Schelly suggests, leading to Ackerman’s heart attacks. Ackerman wrote, “In August I got a real snide snooty snotty letter from someone signing themselves Secretary to Jeff Rovin [consulting editor of FM of late] informing me that Jim Warren had offered Jeff Rovin editorship of FM and that I was soon to be reduced to Editor Emeritus. I feel abused; hypocritically, disrespectfully and cavalierly treated; so I quit before I was ousted”

There were ups and downs for Famous Monsters, but the run ended in 1983, with Ackerman saying: “For twenty years we shared all kinds of confidences, the lush times and the lean, but in the past five years he’s become remote and an enigma... On my sixtieth birthday [November 24, 1976] he was out in Los Angeles telling a couple hundred people what a great guy the Vice-President of the Warren Publications (me) was, how I was his ‘oldest and most valued employee,’ how he was going to put me in a brand-new Cadillac for my birthday, etc. He couldn’t say enough nice things about me. Five years later—after about four years of silence—I didn’t even get a card for my sixty-fifth. To this day, I don’t hate Jim Warren—I’m baffled by him, I’m hurt, but I’m not mad at him.”

Warren was the first publisher to believe in a black-and-white magazine of comics. A running theme throughout Warren’s publishing career is that he emulated and copied the EC style of comics and genres.  Archie Goodwin thought “the initial reaction to Creepy was good enough that Warren and Russ Jones . . . began looking around immediately for other EC style material that they might do in the same kind of black-and-white comic book format." EC, of course, had horror and monsters and so did Warren. EC had great war comics, and Warren was to publish Blazing Combat, which only last four issues. But Warren got angry when he was copied.  An example of that was Castle of Frankenstein, obviously inspired by Famous Monsters, but with a more adult feel to it. And Ivie included in- depth articles in other areas of popular culture such as comic books. This appealed to an older audience than Famous Monsters.

But that didn’t stop him from trying to copy Mad magazine with Harvey Kurtzman in a humor mag named Help!:  Warren gave Kurtzman 50 percent of the voting stock, which meant, in effect, he had editorial control.”  Another agreement was created to establish Kurtzman’s ownership of anything he wrote or drew for the magazine.

Warren was a creative person himself. Even Kurtzman acknowledged this. (“Warren’s got a good graphic mind. He’s got visual talent.”) And this was unusual, as Warren has said: “I talk with publishers who have never drawn a panel in their life and never written a script in their life. And I think I’m better than they are."

Harvey hired Gloria Steinem as his assistant in 1959, who was then twenty-six years old. The future feminist recalled, “I was Harvey’s first assistant on Help! magazine. I don’t think I had ever read Mad. I was probably the least likely person to be his assistant.” Kurtzman also hired Terry Gilliam, who would later be one sixth of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.Help! continued with contributions by Gilbert Shelton and R. Crumb, who found fame as underground comic artists.  Heck, they had to start somewhere. Help! lasted 26 issues, ending in 1965.

If you were not around in 1966 it would take another blog to demonstrate how popular the Beatles, James Bond and Batman were in the media. They were everywhere. Media was more limited then, although we did not think so, but one or the others seemed to be on every magazine cover or variety TV show. Warren was not one to miss the boat.  He released a one shot On The Scene: Superheroes featuring stories about Batman, Superman, The Phantom, Captain Marvel and Captain America. These were stories primarily about the 1940s serials, which were virtually unseen in that era before VHS, cable and DVDS. Everyone I knew interested in comics not only bought this, but still have it to this day!

Not only did he keep the world at arm’s length, building a wall around his personal life and inner self, but he promoted an image that was more mythmaking than revealing. Barton Banks, his longtime friend, said, “Half of everything Jim Warren says is absolutely true.””

Roy Thomas: When CREEPY #1 came along, I bought it... but said (and I believe wrote, in AE) unkind things about the writing.  The artwork, of course, was in many cases superb.  I bought a few issues of CREEPY, EERIE, and even VAMPIRELLA from time to time, but never became a devotee.  I realized that Archie Goodwin had brought better writing to the magazines for a time, and I recall a few particular stories that impressed me, including one early sword-and-sorcery story drawn by Steve Ditko.  However, by the time I got into the business, they were just barely on my radar at all.

The creation of Creepy magazine demonstrates the lack of straight forwardness for Warren.  He promised the job of editor to Larry Ivie, in writing, and then rudely ignored him when he was wooed by artist Russ Jones. Although Warren even paid Ivie for his work, Warren would deny that Ivie was asked to be editor. In reading the details, it was just a sleazy way to treat someone. Ivie: “There wouldn’t have been a Creepy without what I gave to Warren.”

Schelly provides some wonderful, enjoyable stories of Frank Frazetta, Alex Toth,  Neal Adams, Richard Corben, Jack Davis, Steve Ditko, Will Elder, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Al Williamson, Bernie Wrightson, Maurice Whitman, Angelo Torres, Roy Krenkel, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan, John Severin, and many others.

Steve Ditko at Warren (Creepy and Eerie)

I have always wondered about how artists drew the black and white comics versus the color ones. Schelly gives great insight on how this was done.  For example, Steve Ditko (after he’d quit Marvel) submitted artwork for a story titled“The Spirit of the Thing!” in Creepy #9. It was the first of his painted stories. when Ditko saw it in print, he adjusted his painting technique and stayed away from the darker tones. His wash tones improved with each story until he had completely mastered the technique. Again, it was the freedom at Warren that allowed Ditko to try something new, and the results were stellar. He didn’t entirely eschew straight pen and ink. “Collector’s Edition!” in Creepy #10 is probably his ultimate effort. It wasn’t just Ditko.  Will Eisner worked with Warren on reprints of The Spirit and seeing his work in black and white, Eisner made adjustments to his original artwork. Below is an example.

Bernie Wrightson

Bernie Wrightson needed $300 to keep his phone service.. He went to Warren and asked for an advance. Warren said "No. I do not pay artists in advance. And here’s why… I give you this money in advance, you could walk out of the office, cross the street and get hit by a truck….I’m out my money...However, I will give you a personal loan." Then, months later, Wrightson needed more money. He asked Warren for a personal loan to cover things. Warren said, "No. I do not give artists personal loans…‘But what I can do, is give you an advance on the job you’re doing for me.”

Warren promised the rates of $35 a page, same as Dell and Gold Key, but less than Marvel and DC for the art and $10 for the writing. He also provided credits, which only Marvel was doing at the time.

Frazetta would say, “He was a fun guy, but also full of crap. He’s a great guy, very amiable, a lot of fun. He’s a cocky little guy and he bullshits you a lot, but if you know him you can handle him, no problem. He was funny. He had this routine: ‘We’re a team, blah blah blah…’ I’d say, ‘Jim, cut the horseshit, will you? I’ll do the work because I love working in a larger format, and because you stay off my back.”

By and large, it seems, the black and white magazines gave artists the freedom to experiment that wouldn't have been allowed or appreciated in the color comic books. He lost Frazetta as his cover artist “Others were paying me $1,000 and $10,000 for commissioned work, so how the hell could I work for Warren? It’s very difficult.”

The ads were very important to Warren. Schelly explains that he set up his own company to sell many of these products. Fabulous Flo Steinberg was enlisted to help fulfill the orders

Warren did not feel he had to appeal to his fans.  At a convention in 1965, he provoked outrage from his own readers by proclaiming: “What good is fandom to publishing?’ . . . At the risk of being attacked, I don’t think fandom means one damn when it comes to publishing…“What kind of influence do you have for the publishers? None! Don’t let any publisher ever tell you [that] you influence him. You don’t. Stop shaking your head.” He admitted that he had let Forrest Ackerman be guided by reader requests for a “personality publication” in 1963, and how sales had dropped as a result. “Most fans have absolutely no conception of the economies of publishing. When it all comes down to it, the help and the contributions that you make to publishing can be put into Mickey Mouse’s watch pocket.” He added, “Fans, I can do without, economically. Readers, I can’t.”

Creepy’s success, in 1965, led to a second horror title, Eerie. It was essentially the same magazine, using the same writers and artists. As if it was a “B” movie Schelly describes the race where Warren beats Myron Fass to copyrighting the name Eerie in 1965. Eerie was originally the name of a famous 1940-50s horror comic published by Avon. Fass loved to recycle discarded titles for his brief foray into comics, even publishing an astonishingly bad series named Captain Marvel in 1966.

An original Eerie cover and splash by Wally Wood from the 1940s

Eerie #60

At the same time, Blazing Combat was introduced and Schelly tells great stories about its creation and the tales it told. Sadly, too, as Schelly explains, it was considered “anti-war” at the time of the Vietnam war and the magazine was sabotaged from the beginning.

It wasn’t all good things. I enjoyed the first 20 issues of Creepy and I now know that it was probably due to Archie Goodwin being a story editor (for the first three magazines) and then editor until issue #16.  Russ Jones was fired after issue #3.  Internally, Schelly explains, people were not getting paid on time or at all. Goodwin resigned with issue #16 and readers noticed the difference in the publication. Readers who habitually picked up the company’s magazines had no idea of the behind-the-scenes problems. All they could see was that Archie Goodwin was gone and the magazines were filled with reprints and substandard art.

Vamprella is launched in 1969.  Schelly tells about the deep publishing history, but the costume, which could never stay on in the real world, has its own origin.

Warren didn’t like Frazetta’s initial costume design. One day, aspiring cartoonist Trina Robbins was showing the publisher her latest work, when she became involved in the process. “I was sitting in Warren’s office. Frazetta called to discuss a sketch of Vampirella that he’d sent to Jim. Warren said it wasn’t right. Frank had drawn her wearing, more or less, a basic bikini, but Jim had something else in mind. It became clear that Frank wasn’t getting the idea as Jim tried to describe it, so Jim turned to me and described the costume, the way the top was open in front and attached to a collar, the boots and so on. I drew it as he was talking. ‘That’s it!’ he said, pointing to my sketch. ‘Now describe it exactly to Frank,’ he said, handing me the phone.”

Let us cut through some of the baloney (that’s the polite word) about publishers and businessmen, something Warren was generally more honest and blunt about.  Good businessmen study and learn the marketplace they are entering.  Warren: “Warren Publishing has a reputation of sorts for hating its competition. That’s true. We do. Does Hertz like Avis? Does Crest like Colgate? Of course not!” He recounted how Stan Lee told him he thought there was room on the newsstands “for all of us.”

I hate Marvel,” Warren says.

He despises me,” acknowledged Stan Lee.  “If I had any sense I’d hire a bodyguard.”  “We never pay much attention to the other companies… “We just go ahead and do our thing.”  This is baloney.  Martin Goodman, in the 1940s and 1950s, was never an innovator and Marvel always saw what the competition was doing and then emulated them with a flood of titles.  In 1961, when Goodman discovered that the Justice League of America was a big seller, he told Lee to start a line of super-hero comics, beginning with the Fantastic Four.” Coming up through the ranks I know that most fans think of Lee as just a writer, but as editor and then publisher, Lee was also a hardnosed business man who knew the marketplace and his competition. He could not succeed any other way. His choices were not random, but thought out. “I think (Warren’s) a nut, the way he carries on because we’re putting out these books, but we never pay much attention to the competition.”

Yet, in a 1960s Bullpen Bulletin, Lee says he is sick of the competition when they try to emulate Marvel.  He had had enough. But, now, a decade later, it was okay for him to imitate the competition and at the same time denying he was looking at their magazines.  At this time, Warren was successful and Skywald, led by former Marvel production manager, Sol Brodsky was apparently successful in a series of black and white magazines that featured horror, suspense, and even super–heroes.

When the editor of Eerie J. R. Cochran saw a freelancer’s work in Skywald’s Psycho #6 he wrote to him and said, “We do not accept work by writers who work for the competition. We expect our writers to share a common loyalty with us in putting out the best black-and-white comics around! If they choose to work for our competition, we cannot use them.”

Tom Sutton said: “I remember the loyalty oath. I couldn’t stop laughing for two days. I just trashed it. I never paid any attention to it… But it was so crazy that you couldn’t really get angry with him.”
When Warren sent many scripts back to Doug Moench for no other reason that there were too many of them, Doug wrote, “I sent them to Skywald. A lot of times they had stuff that was just as good, or maybe even better than some of that Creepy and Eerie stuff.  And then Jim Warren flipped out. I was supposed to be loyal and, you know, how dare I be a traitor and sell to the competition…Eventually I was writing so many that I was sending some not just to Skywald, but also to House of Mystery and House of Secrets at DC."

Castle of Frankenstein was direct competition for Famous Monsters. But the approach here was much more adult.

Skywald Magazines 

Butterfly was the first female African American Super-Hero

Marvel quickly released a great deal of black and white magazines in the mid 1970s. They were of several genres, horror, suspense, super-hero, action and humor. The ones that strongly competed with Warren, Dracula Lives, Vampire Tales, Tales of the Zombie and several others, quickly failed, not going past 12 issues. The adventure series, Conan, Planet of the Apes, Master of Kung Fu and the humor magazine Crazy lasted much longer and were successful.  Warren publishing did not seem to be hurt by these magazines. Marvel did put Skywald out of business, the competition was too much for a new company to withstand.

Roy Thomas: Over the years, I enjoyed a somewhat tempestuous relationship with Jim Warren, for whom I never worked in any capacity.  I was part of a group he took out to dinner a time or two--I remember one grouping, which also included Steranko, that he took to a high-tone Brazilian restaurant. But things deteriorated a bit when Marvel got into the black-&-white comics field, since I was heard that he believed Stan had promised him years earlier, when Jim had sponsored him for membership in some club (the Friars?), that Marvel would never enter that field.  I've no idea what actually transpired between Stan and Jim--Stan never mentioned that arrangement--but of course Stan was pushing by the late '60s for Marvel to get into that field, as witness the first SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN and then SAVAGE TALES #1.  Once Stan became publisher, the gloves were off and suddenly we had several such mags in the works virtually overnight. Jim apparently made it difficult for people to work for both him and Marvel.  In a spirit of mischief, at that time I sent him a note which was a sort of parody of a memo from him cautioning artists not to work for Marvel if they wanted work from Warren... I closed it with the tagline "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me."  Jim's reaction, if any, I do not know.

Marvel's Magazines

Sales of the Warren magazines dropped precipitously across the board in the 1980s. The print runs were at an all-time low, and returns increased dramatically. While one can attribute some of the decline to the magazines’ lack of freshness and the tastes of the public moving on, one can’t help but notice that Curtis Publications had discontinued nearly all of the many Marvel black-and-white magazines by 1981. There were forces beyond the quality of the magazines themselves. Clearly, the rapid decline in newsstand distribution was dragging them down.  In December 1982, the last five Warren magazines were published. They were Vampirella #112, Eerie #139, Creepy #145, 1994 #29 and Famous Monsters #191.

Roy Thomas: ...for the most part, I got a kick out of Jim and enjoyed his company, even if he came on a bit strong. I was happy to see  him in the field and surviving as other b&w imitators fell by the wayside, because he had made a major investment of time and money in the field.  FAMOUS MONSTERS was an important magazine... if you don't believe me, ask guys like Lucas and Spielberg, et al.  And CREEPY kept alive the flame, at least, of the kind of thing that EC had been during the 1950s.  We keep in touch nowadays, exchanging Christmas cards and the like.  I wish him well... and if he isn't in the Eisner Hall of Fame, he deserves to be.

The ending comes not with a bang but with a lot of lawsuits about who owns what and who cheated whom.  Schelly explains it clearly and removes much of the confusion.  The crumbling of his operation, ending in the firm’s filing for bankruptcy in 1983, is a saga in itself, capped by Warren’s Houdini-like vanishing act from public view.

Archie Goodwin who, writing in 1981, summs up Warren’s legacy: “Warren was the first new publisher to seriously enter the field since the ’50s and the only one among a number who would follow to succeed. The Warren comics never seriously challenged larger companies such as Marvel and DC in sales, but they very successfully created their own special niche in the market and in comics history, providing an alternative to the mainstream emphasis on superheroes and a showcase for promising new talent as well as some of the greatest names in both the US and Europe.” One way of summarizing the quality of the Warren magazines is that they contained the work of more than thirty writers and artists who have been voted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame, work that in many cases demonstrated that comics could appeal to older readers, and to those not interested in super heroes. Some of them got their start or gained early exposure in the pages of Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Some, certain employees and freelancers among them, will always look upon Warren in a negative light. Others, particularly those who got close to him, think of him in the warmest of terms. In the long run, the task he assumed was largely a thankless one, because it involved standing behind the scenes and letting the people who wrote and drew the magazines shine. They were the stars, and he was the man who presented their work. Or, to use his words, “Guys like me create work for guys like them.

 “Why did you decide to write about James Warren?”  

   After reading this book, that was the question I asked Bill Schelly.  Here is his answer!

I’ve gotten asked that question a lot recently.  The answer goes back to the reasons I decide to write any biography, whether it’s Harvey Kurtzman or John Stanley or Jim Warren.  It has to be about someone who I am interested in, and who is an interesting person.  I was a fan of Famous Monsters of Filmland when I was around 11 or 12, and when I was 13 when I became a fan of Creepy.  I loved those first three years that were edited by Archie Goodwin, of both Creepy and Eerie.  And, while I wasn’t a fan of war comics at that age, I did admire the art in Blazing Combat.  All were published by Warren, and all were intelligent and high quality publications. (Well, maybe I wouldn’t say Famous Monsters was “intelligent”….)  By the time I met Jim Warren in person, at the 1973 New York Comic Art convention, he had acquired the reputation of being an eccentric guy, a confrontational guy – and a provocateur.  But Jim was very, very nice to me.  I told him I was looking for work in New York City, and he gave me his card and said he was looking for someone to work in his production department. “Call my editor Bill DuBay,” he said.  So I did, and while the job never materialized, I came away with a positive impression of Warren.  When I got back into fandom in 1990 after a dozen years away, and began writing biographies of comics people, I thought of Warren because of all that he had achieved, surviving for 25 years in an industry dominated by DC and Marvel – when just about all the other publishers fell away.  I began wondering “How did he do it?” and “What happened to him after his company went out of business?”  I became intensely curious about the guy.  Jon B. Cooke’s interview with him in the Warren Companion is superb, but it left a lot of questions unanswered. Gradually I decided that Jim would be the right subject for a real biography.

I hope this blog will encourage you to read the full story, in Bill Schelly’s Empire of Monsters. Let me know what you think of the book in the blog comments.

The hardcover collection of Creepy, Eerie, Blazing Combat and Vampirella are now available.

A big shout out to Carl Thiel who helped me with this article!!!! It is great to discuss these blogs with someone while you are putting them together.